Jennifer Hill: Employers have responsibilities when helping staff return to the workplace

Jennifer Hill: Making a return to the workplace

As lockdown is relaxed during the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, employers need to plan carefully for employees’ return to the workplace.

Crucially, employees should continue to work from home if they can, and employers should take all reasonable steps to help employees to do so.

Employers should also consider the guidance issued by the government on return to work across eight types of workplace. Particularly, employers should carry out a risk assessment in consultation with workers or trade unions; businesses with over 50 employees are expected to publish them online. They should ensure two metres social distancing wherever possible, for example by staggering start times or changing seating layouts. They should manage transmission risk, for example by putting barriers in shared spaces or creating fixed teams. They should also consider taking steps to allow for contact tracing should an employee contract Coronavirus, and reinforce cleaning processes: workplaces should be cleaned more frequently and handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers provided.

Nonetheless, employees may be unable or unwilling to return to the workplace due to concerns about the health risks of travel to and attendance at work. Penalising an employee in such circumstances could leads to claims of detriment or automatically unfair dismissal. Travel to work may present specific problems given that government advice remains to avoid using public transport if possible. Employers can offer benefits such as covering alternative travel expenses or introducing flexible hours.

Employers will also need take into account employees’ particular personal circumstances relating to their health, the health of someone they live with or  childcare issues, especially while schools remain closed to most pupils.

Above all, coupled with proper risk assessments, clear and effective communication will be crucial to ensure that employees understand and have confidence in the arrangements being put in place, and their own responsibilities, and will ensure the employer can properly take into account individuals’ challenges in returning to work.

Jennifer Hill is an employment associate at Dechert. 

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