Coronavirus Q&A – Advice for UK Employers

Nicola Mullineux

Nicola Mullineux

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13 May 2020

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First published 3rd March 2020. Last updated 13th May 2020 at 11:00.

The UK is officially in lockdown, but what does that mean for your business?

For expert advice regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace, call our employment law experts on freephone 01455 858132 or contact us online and we'll call you.

 

Coronavirus advice for employers

Employers across the country have questions in relation to the Coronavirus. Here are some of the more common ones, with answers helpfully provided:

Q: The Government have announced I need to shut down, what do I do now?

A: Just because your business has been deemed non-essential doesn’t mean it has to stop working. If your employees can feasibly work from home, operations can continue.

If you do let your employees continue to work from home, you should ensure you pay them as normal.

On the other hand, if it’s not possible for employees to work from home, staff can be laid off on no pay if you have a contractual clause to that effect. Or, you can take advantage of the Job Retention Scheme and furlough them. Find more details on this new scheme in the following Q&A.

Updates are posted regularly on the government website, so keep up to date with them here.

Q: What financial support is the Government offering?

A: The latest support the Government is offering is called the ‘Job Retention Scheme’. This involves placing an employee on a ‘furlough’. This isn’t a term commonly used in UK employment law, but is used in the USA.

The term means temporarily changing their status to ‘furloughed worker, where they don’t work but are retained on your books to be brought back when you need them.

The government is offering grants to cover 80% of furloughed employees’ wages, to a maximum of £2,500 per employee per month.

Any employer can access this scheme, regardless of size or business type.

You need to get agreement from your employees before designating them as furloughed workers and submit that information to HMRC with each employee’s earnings. The first grants should be paid by the end of April 2020.

Any employee can be furloughed, including those on zero-hour and temp contracts, so long as they’re on PAYE. So ultimately, it’s your choice who utilises the scheme and who doesn’t. You can’t make employees work while they’re furloughed, even if they’re on short time working.

The Scheme will run until the end of October, but there will be some changes from August which will bring about the sharing of wage costs between the employer and the Government where employees are brought back from furlough on part-time basis.

Q: Where can I get more information on the Job Retention Scheme and Furloughing?

A: Guidance on who you can furlough and how is changing. For example, a recent change updated previous criteria for furloughing shielding employees. Now, employees who are unable to work because they’re shielding in line with public health guidance can be furloughed.

We go into more depth on what it means to furlough employees, and the job retention scheme as a whole in our furlough guide which you can download here.

Q: Employees need to care for dependants. Can I expect them to work from home?

A: Potentially, yes.

Assess the situation carefully. Just because an employee is also caring for children doesn’t necessarily mean they’re unable to do their work. It might be worth implementing a trial period where you can observe the arrangement and evaluate if it’s working.

Time off for dependants only covers a short amount of time and if the employee is unable work from home, and unable to make other arrangements for the care of their child, you should try to agree that they take annual leave, or take a period of unpaid leave.

Whatever your approach, remain in contact with the employee and pass on any updates as soon as possible.

Q: Can an employee take annual leave when on furlough?

A: Yes, but you must pay the employee their normal wages during annual leave. You will only be able to claim back 80% of the pay so must fund the extra yourself.

Q: What do I do if an essential worker refuses to come into work?

A: Employees are rightfully concerned about their health. If there’s a heightened risk of catching the virus in your workplace, some employees may refuse to come in. If they do this you should listen to their concerns and offer reassurance.

If they’re a key worker, it’s likely homeworking isn’t possible. But, if it is, consider arrangements, or other flexible working options. For example, many schools are arranging a rota system amongst their staff.

And, of course, if there’s a legitimate reason for not coming into the office (as outlined above) employees should be staying at home.

Forcing an employee to come into work against their will, in these unprecedented circumstances, is likely to get messy fast, so try to be as considerate and flexible as possible. If the employee refuses to engage with you, you could consider disciplinary procedures, but be cautious in doing so.

Q: Do I have to pay employees who are self-isolating?

A: The other issue that comes with self-isolating is pay. Everyone who has been advised to self-isolate will be entitled to SSP. This is provided they meet other qualifying conditions, such as a minimum level of earnings and it is now payable from day one of absence, rather than day four.

For companies with fewer than 250 staff, the Government has pledged to refund SSP for the first two weeks of absence.

Q: Do I have to pay employees who have Coronavirus?

A: SSP is paid at £95.85 per week for up to 28 weeks, and is normally paid from the fourth day of sickness absence, however, the government has now confirmed that SSP is provided from day one, not day four, where the employee has coronavirus or has been told to self-isolate.

The individual may not have to provide a doctor’s note, as staff can self-certify for up to seven days’ sickness without a doctor.

Q: Should I pay someone who is self-isolating to take care of a dependant with Coronavirus symptoms?

A: If they are under government guidance to self-isolate then they should receive SSP if they meet the qualifying conditions.

Q: What should I do to minimise impact?

A: Acas has also provided guidance for what you should do if the virus spreads more widely across the UK. You should:

  • Ensure staff details are up to date
  • Ensure emergency contact details are up to date
  • Refresh managers on policies & procedures, in particular those relating to sickness absence
  • Implement NHS advice on hygiene in your workplace, including hand-washing guidance and the provision of soap and water
  • Provide hand sanitisers and tissues to staff an encourage usage of them.

It’s also worth considering whether you might need to close your workplace. This includes considering whether homeworking is possible, and maintaining communication with staff.

Q: What about those on parental leave?

A: The Government has introduced legislation which differs from the initial guidance given on maternity pay. Previously, statutory maternity pay (SMP) incorporated furlough pay into its calculations. If the eight week calculation period contained all, or some furlough pay, this would affect entitlement to, or the level of, SMP.

Now, you need to assess entitlement to SMP according to the employee’s normal full pay, not their furlough pay.

This applies to paternity, adoption, shared parental and parental bereavement leave too. Have you already started paying SMP based on previous guidance? Call us today for support on 01455 858 132.

Q: I am about to re-open my business. How do I bring my staff back from furlough?

A: Get in contact with your employees and confirm when you want them to come back to work, accounting for any notice period that you told them you would give. It’s best to speak to each employee about their circumstances because some may have caring commitments for which new arrangements will need to be made. You should also identify how they will travel to work; advice in England is that public transport should be avoided when travelling to work. Agree a return to work plan with them. Importantly, you should ensure your workplace meets the Government’s “COVID-19 Secure” guidelines and explain to your employees what you have done as this may help to allay any concerns they have about their safety while at work.

Q: As part of the social distancing measures, I want to stagger employees’ start times so they aren’t all arriving at the same time. How do I do this?

A: Changing start times will involve a temporary change to the employee’s terms and conditions; this means you need employees’ agreement. Speak to your employees and let them know what you want to do and why, and get confirmation from them that they agree to the temporary change. It’s advised to get agreement in writing.

Employer support with the Coronavirus

If you have questions or just want guidance through a sickness absence issue, speak to a Croner expert today on 01455 858132 or contact us online and we'll call you.

About the Author

Nicola Mullineux

Nicola Mullineux, as Group Content Manager, leads a team of employment law content writers who produce guidance and commentary on employment law, case law and key HR developments. She has written articles for national publications for over 10 years and regularly helps to shape employment of the future by taking part in Government consultations on employment law change.

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Nicola Mullineux

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