Coronavirus has wrought immediate and enormous changes to working practices across the UK. As the government advises businesses and workplaces to encourage staff to work from home wherever possible, employees and employers alike are understandably rushing to ensure they understand their rights and responsibilities under law.
Employers have to take reasonable care of their employees’ health and safety in the workplace, and in the context of Coronavirus, this now means: facilitating home working wherever possible; providing tissues, hand sanitiser and appropriate spacing for staff who do need to come into the office; and keeping working environments scrupulously clean.
The safety issues for high-risk individuals, such as older people, those with underlying medical conditions and pregnant women should be carefully considered, and those individuals in particular enabled to work from home. Employers must also act on enforcing government rules on self-isolation if an employee develops new symptoms.
Reward and benefits professionals are likely to find it easier than many others to facilitate remote working, with most such professionals desk-based and able to switch to remote collaboration tools for working with colleagues. Provided they can carry out normal responsibilities from home, the employer must pay them as normal.
Should someone have more of a front-line role which cannot be carried out in the same way from home, it is wise to have a conversation with the employer about the best way forward.
Lower-risk individuals may choose to continue going into the office, while following the government’s social distancing guidelines. Lower-risk individuals who live with vulnerable people should have a conversation with their employer about the best way forward; it may be that a temporary arrangement can be agreed.
Some may be concerned about their employer restricting hours or pay during the crisis. Lay-offs, where an employee is asked to stay at home unpaid for a temporary period, and short-time working, where an employee is asked to work less than their regularly contracted hours, may both be used. However, there must be express, correctly-drafted clauses in the original employment contracts for this to happen.
Should an employee become symptomatic, their employer’s usual sickness absence policy will come into effect. The government has mandated that those who follow advice to stay at home will be eligible for statutory sick pay from the first day of their absence from work; of course, many organisations, particularly those that take reward and benefits seriously, have more generous policies than this.
Mini Setty is a partner in employment law at Langleys Solicitors