The coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) has raised serious health concerns, with some countries imposing travel restrictions to tackle the spread of the illness.
In the UK, the Government has confirmed that workers will receive statutory sick pay from the first day off work to encourage sick employees to self-isolate. Naturally, this has raised more questions about sick pay and working from home.
Reducing the risk to employees
The sensible course of action for employers to take at this stage is to note the advice given by official bodies and ensure that this is shared throughout the workforce.
It may also be wise to designate an available space as an ‘isolation room’, to which sick employees could retire whilst calling NHS 111.
Other steps to take include:
• Update the contact numbers and emergency contact details of employees
• Ensure that managers are aware of the symptoms of the virus
• Disseminate information across management on issues such as sick leave and sick pay
• Ensure that facilities for regular and thorough washing of hands are in place
• Dispense hand sanitisers and tissues to employees.
Given the advice around handwashing, it’s important that employers encourage their workforce to take extra care without the fear of being punished for taking slightly longer than usual.
What to do if an employee becomes unwell
If an employee exhibits the symptoms of the virus, they should be removed from the proximity of other employees, placed in the designated ‘isolation room’ and encouraged to follow precautions.
Uncertainty over the exact nature of the symptoms may lead to some employees coming to work despite having contracted the virus, without necessary feeling unwell.
If this does happen, then an employer should contact the local Public Health England (PHE) health protection team, and they will discuss the details and outline any precautions which should be taken.
The position on sick pay
If an employee is off sick with the virus then the legal situation regarding sick pay is the same as it is with any other illness; however, the employee is now entitled to statutory sick pay from the first day of work, not the fourth.
The Government has stated that if NHS 111 or a doctor advises an employee or worker to self-isolate, then they should receive any statutory sick pay due to them or contractual sick pay if this is offered by the employer.
In some cases, employees may be able to work from home while in self-isolation. However, in many cases, if an employee cannot attend their place of work, they will be unable to work.
Ultimately, there is no obligation on an employer to allow an employee to stay away from work and, if the non-attendance causes issues or extends beyond an emergency precaution, then an employer is entitled to take disciplinary action.
No time to be divisive
Employers must also take steps to ensure that no members of staff, customers or suppliers are treated differently because of their race or ethnicity.
It may be appropriate to remind staff that jokes and banter can slip over the line to become unlawful harassment and/or discrimination, for which an employer may be liable.
Employers can avoid liability by proving they have taken all ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent such behaviour, which includes providing training to all staff.
About Tina Chander…
Tina is a partner and Head Of The Employment Team at leading Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall, and deals with contentious and non-contentious employment law issues. She acts for employers of all sizes from small businesses to large national and international businesses, advising in connection with all aspects of employment tribunal proceedings and appeals.