covid-19 guidance

Covid-19 guidance for employers and employees

We are in unprecedented times with businesses of all sizes being unduly affected by coronavirus.

As specialist employment law solicitors, we’ve had a number of calls over the last few weeks, from both employees and employers about coronavirus in the workplace. We take a look at just some of those questions. 

What are employers’ obligations if a business has been told to shut down?

If a business has been deemed non-essential, then staff should not be coming into work. However, it doesn’t mean that all business operations need to cease. If employees are able to work from home, they should, and they should be paid as normal.

If employees can’t work from home, there are a number of choices: 

  1. Lay off an employee and ask them to stay at home or take unpaid leave. You can only do this if the employment contract allows. 
  2. Introduce short-time working where an employee is asked to work reduced hours 
  3. Furlough staff via the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

Layoffs, short-time working and furloughing staff can all help avoid redundancies, but they have to be agreed with staff first. 

What does it mean to furlough workers? 

Under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, an employee’s status can be temporarily changed to ‘furloughed worker’. This means they remain on a company’s books but aren’t working at the present.

The government is offering grants to cover 80% of their wages to a maximum of £2,500 per employee per month.  This scheme is available to all employers who use the PAYE payroll from 28 February 2020, including: 

  • employees
  • workers
  • those who do casual work
  • those who have zero-hours contracts

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How do you furlough workers?

To be eligible for the scheme, employers will need to:

  • select and tell (‘designate’) the employees affected that they’re furloughed
  • keep employees on the payroll
  • make sure furloughs last at least 3 weeks

To avoid discrimination, employees must be selected for furlough in a fair way and the employee must agree to be furloughed, unless it’s already covered in their employment contract.

All furlough agreements should be in writing and include: 

  • The date furlough starts
  • How much the person will be paid 
  • When it will be reviewed
  • How you will be staying in contact during furlough.

The government will pay employers 80% of wages and an employer can decide to top up their wages to 100%, but they do not have to. If the employer decides not to top up the wages, they should tell the employee and explain their reasons. 

If the employee disagrees with these reasons and won’t come to an agreement with the employer, it might be necessary to change the written terms of an employee’s contract. 

If you want any advice on employment contracts, or help putting together furlough agreements, please get in touch

What happens if an employee doesn’t want to go into work? 

Some workplaces are still open, but as many people are quite rightly worried about their health, they may refuse to come in. If this happens, listen careful to their concerns and consider whether other options would be appropriate, such as:

  • Homeworking
  • Flexible working options, such as a rota system for staff
  • Suggest they request the time off as holiday or take it as unpaid leave. 

Forcing someone to come into work is inadvisable so being flexible is key. However, if an employee refuses to go to work without due cause and is unwilling to discuss alternative options, then an employer is entitled to take disciplinary action. 

Are employees who cannot attend work because they are looking after dependants entitled to pay?

If employees are unable to attend work because they have to look after children or other dependants, then ‘Time off for family and dependants’ will cover them for a short time. Whether they are paid for this time will normally be outlined in either their employment contract or company handbook. 

Annual level can be taken for longer periods or they could choose to take  unpaid parental leave.  

If an individual is still able to work from home, while looking after dependants, then they will need to be paid as normal. It’s advisable to run a trial period just to check that both employer and employee are happy with this arrangement and that work output isn’t unduly affected. 

Do employees have to be paid if they are self-isolating or have coronavirus? 

Everyone who has been advised to self-isolate or has coronavirus will be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), as long as they meet the minimum level of earnings. Staff can still self-certify for up to seven days’ sickness without a doctor’s note. 

SSP is now payable from day one of absence, rather than day four, and for companies with fewer than 250 staff, the Government has pledged to refund SSP for the first two weeks of absence.

Where can I get further employment advice?

As High Wycombe Solicitors, we help clients across High Wycombe and Marlow, Buckinghamshire, so if you have any concerns about your employment rights, either as an employer or employee, please get in touch