Joanne Moseley: Should employers pay staff for periods of isolation due to Coronavirus?

The answer to this is more complicated than you might expect and depends on the reason why someone is self-isolating.

If an employee has symptoms, they must self-isolate for seven days. If they do not, but live with someone who has, they have to self-isolate for 14 days. In both cases, provided they otherwise qualify, they should receive statutory sick pay (SSP) from the first day of their absence. They may also be entitled to contractual sick pay but this will depend on the wording of the policy and how it has been applied to others.

However, if they are not ill and are self-isolating in line with government guidance, and can work from home, employers should continue to pay them as normal.

Some staff are choosing to self-isolate because they are frightened of contracting the disease, or spreading it to others they care for. If they can work from home, employers should pay them. However, if it is reasonable to expect them to go to work, and that will be judged in context, employers could treat this as unauthorised absence and refuse to pay them.

The government has asked everyone who is considered to be at high risk of suffering the most severe symptoms to socially distance themselves from others. This includes anyone over the age of 70, those with underlying health issues and pregnant women.

Employers are responsible for the health and safety of staff and should not insist they come into work against medical or government advice. If they do attend work, employers will need to consider sending them home for their own safety. If they can work from home, the employer should continue to pay them as normal. If they cannot and are not actually ill, and are not technically self-isolating, the employer may, in some circumstances, have to treat their absence as a type of suspension and pay them. We recommend that employers take advice on this.

Remember employers are able to recoup their SSP costs, of up to 14 days, if they employ 250 or fewer staff. We don’t yet know how SMEs go about doing this; the legislation is still going through Parliament and employers will need to check government websites for further information. Unfortunately, if an organisation doesn’t fit that description, it will have to meet the costs itself.

Jo Moseley is an employment law associate at Irwin Mitchell