Diane Lightfoot: Coronavirus and disability – keeping employees safe

As the number of confirmed cases of Coronavirus grows, employers are rightly concerned about the impact that the virus could have on their workforce.

Some employees may be more susceptible to catching infections than others. This includes those with certain disabilities or conditions, and those who may be taking medication which compromises their immune system.

It is important for employers to consider their duty of care, and to understand whether additional adjustments are needed.

Adjustments may include allowing working from home, even if the person is not unwell. They may be concerned about the risk of mixing with colleagues or travelling on public transport.

We know that even when home working is offered it is often not always practical for the employee because they do not have access to the necessary technology. Employers should discuss assistive technology needs and review options for installing software and apps on work laptops and mobiles.

Obviously, not all jobs can be done from home. If this is the case, then it may be a reasonable adjustment to allow the person to take time off. Length of time off work, disruption to the organisation and the size of the employer would all need to be considered when deciding whether or not this time off should be paid.

An employee may also request to work from home if they live with, or have caring responsibilities for, someone who is more susceptible to the serious symptoms of the virus. Again, time off should be offered, if home working is not possible. But there is no obligation for this to be paid, unless taken from annual leave.

If an employee is told to self-isolate, they may not be unwell, but equally may be in a role which they cannot do from home. Most contractual sick pay policies will not cover these exceptional circumstances. Employers should consider amending policies to allow for the 14-day quarantine period to be covered.

The prime minister recently announced that statutory sick pay will be available from the first day of sickness. The Chancellor extended this in his budget statement this month to include all employees who have been asked to self-isolate. However, it is unclear how this will apply to any employees who have chosen to self-isolate; with information changing, it is important to keep a close eye on government websites.

Diane Lightfoot is chief executive officer at the Business Disability Forum (BDF)