Employment specialist at Coodes Solicitors, Philip Sayers, discussed the most common workplace questions being asked by businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Businesses are having to change and adapt their usual ways of working to ensure they are meeting current government guidelines in order to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. Many businesses across the South West are having to close offices, cancel events and correspond via phone or the web for the foreseeable future.
With the current situation moving at such a fast pace, it can be difficult for businesses to keep up with up-to-date advice.
Should staff be working from home?
In accordance with current government advice, staff should work from home wherever possible – provided that it is safe to do so. This is particularly important for older workers and those in vulnerable categories. The closure of schools also provides challenges for parents and employers who will also need to juggle child care needs.
At this difficult time it is essential for employers to support their workers to work from home. Employers should try to put provisions in place such as remote working equipment and workable channels of communication.
Other practical steps include cancelling face to face meetings unless absolutely essential and, where home working is not possible, to consider adjusting working hours to manage numbers in the workplace at any one time and facilitate safer travel to and from the workplace.
What if staff are unable to work during the crisis?
If staff are unable to work because their workplace has closed and home working is not viable or they might otherwise be laid off, the government’s unprecedented emergency funding will come into play.
Employers are being urged not to cut jobs. Sick pay rules have been changed to help workers off sick with coronavirus symptoms. Self-employed workers will now be able to access Universal Credit at a rate equivalent to statutory sick pay for employees.
The government has pledged to pay 80% of workers’ wages who are unable to work, up to a limit of £2,500 a month. Employers will still have to pay the wages initially however employers will be able to access HMRC grants from the end of April, which will be backdated to March. The scheme will initially last three months but could be continued if needed.
The scheme will be called the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. All UK employers are eligible and will have to designate certain employees as furloughed workers. They will then have to submit those details to HMRC through an online portal to be reimbursed the wages they have paid. Furloughing is an all or nothing concept; if the employee is on reduced hours or is undertaking even minimal work from home the worker is not a furloughed employee and therefore would be outside the scope of the scheme. However this is very much in its infancy and more detail is to be expected.
An immediate change is to the benefit system with Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit enhanced for the next twelve months.
For updated information about the package of government support for businesses, see the government website.
What if an employee is absent from work before the government funding is available?
This depends on why the employee is absent from work. If they are sick they may be due company sick pay or statutory sick pay.
The former will depend on whether it is something their employer provides for in their employment contract. The latter will depend on whether they meet eligibility criteria – currently rules require the employee to be earning at least £118 a week.
The government has announced some changes to statutory sick pay. Previously, it was only payable from the fourth day of absence however this has been changed that so that temporarily employees are eligible from the first day. Employers with fewer than 250 employees will now also be able to reclaim statutory sick pay from HMRC.
If an employee is not sick but has been sent home by their employer due to a workplace closure, the employee will likely be due their full pay. It is this scenario, and the possibility of a still tighter lockdown, which the government emergency funding is designed to tackle.
Exceptions to the right to full pay are employees on zero hour contracts and those who have lay-off and short time working provisions in their contracts, which is unusual.
If an employee is not sick and has not been sent home by their employer but is instead choosing to self-isolate for reasons outside the current government guidance, they are likely not due any pay at all. ACAS is urging employers to carefully consider the reason that staff are self-isolating without symptoms before coming to any decisions regarding pay.
For more information or advice on any Employment matters, please contact the Employment team at Coodes Solicitors: CommercialDisputesEmployment@coodes.co.uk