What should employers do about Coronavirus and requests to “self isolate”
LUKE HUTCHINGS >
Employment Law PartnerThu 5 March 2020
Corporate clients of our employment team have been getting in touch to ask questions about precautions they might need to put in place due to the spread of the novel Coronavirus. Clearly this is a very fast-moving news story and subject to Government (and other) intervention.
One of the key questions was how to handle requests from employees who want to “self isolate” and possibly work from home, even if they show no symptoms or where it would be very difficult to carry out their role if they are not in the office.
The main element of the answer is whether the employee in question is actually sick, or whether they only fear they might be “about to be ill”. Business and HR should be aware that this is a critical distinction.
If the employee is merely worried that they might become ill, the response (if desired) could be fairly stern. The company sickness policy would be unlikely to apply; the employee will not have a “fit note” signing them off, and the employee could be required to take annual leave if they wanted to self isolate. Better advice, we believe, could be to flex to a more nuanced position.
Consider bringing in a (time-limited or temporary) Coronavirus staff policy or guideline. Email that to all staff and put up physical posters too. Certainly if staff have been in contact with a known sufferer, or have returned from a high-risk area, they should call nhs 111 and the expected outcome will be that they are told to self isolate.
Business and HR should also adopt that approach. For these employees, arrangements should be made for them to work from home if possible then the question of sick absence and pay does not arise.
Other employers (we have seen Google and Facebook take a relaxed approach) have defaulted to this position for those who have not been in contact with someone with Coronavirus, and/or who have not returned from a high-risk area but may be reporting some symptoms of illness. Consider whether they can contribute by working from home while self isolating (some businesses are more able to accommodate remote working than others).
Your business attitude to risk will be critical here. Sufferers do not always show symptoms in the initial stages of the virus. If you require staff to attend work during that time, they may pass the infection on and worsen your absence rate. You can ask for evidence of symptoms if you wish.
Staff who have been signed off or who are showing symptoms of viral infection will fall under your sickness policy and that will apply. It is expected that the process of obtaining a “fit note” signing off workers will become much simpler or more streamlined if the infection spreads.
Review your employment contracts to check staff entitlement to company sick pay, if your company has its own sickness benefit. SSP is the statutory scheme that will apply to all employees provided they qualify.
The Government has indicated it will relax rules around entitlement to SSP. Some business may wish to review or relax entitlement to company sick pay, or change the rate. If your employment contract allows for changes to be made to staff terms (typically on reasonable notice to all employees) you can be even more flexible on sickness and pay moving forwards. Be careful though, as rushing or forcing through contract changes could well be viewed as unreasonable or a breach of staff rights.
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