Due to the continuing spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) and the rapidly changing situation across the UK, and indeed the rest of the world, many employers may understandably have questions about what they need to do.
The UK government has published guidance for employers regarding coronavirus – click here to access it in full. Please bear in mind that, as the situation develops from day-to-day, advice may change so it is important to keep up to date with the latest guidance.
Workplaces have been encouraged to allow employees to work from home, wherever possible, to help prevent the spread of the virus and protect the most vulnerable in society. Guidance released on 23 March and effective immediately, requires individuals to stay at home, except for very limited purposes, which are:
- for medical reasons or care needs
- to exercise once a day, alone or with members of their immediate household
- to travel to and from work, where “absolutely necessary”
Similarly, shops selling non-essential goods have been ordered to close.
Employees who are from identified vulnerable groups should be strongly advised to stay at home and supported in working from home if possible.
This group includes:
- those aged 70 or older (regardless of medical conditions)
- under 70 with an underlying health condition listed below (i.e. anyone instructed to get a flu jab as an adult each year on medical grounds):
- chronic (long-term) respiratory diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or bronchitis
- chronic heart disease, such as heart failure
- chronic kidney disease
- chronic liver disease, such as hepatitis
- chronic neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), a learning disability or cerebral palsy
- problems with the spleen – for example, sickle cell disease or those who have had their spleen removed
- a weakened immune system as the result of conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy
- being seriously overweight (a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or above)
- those who are pregnant
Employees who are following advice to stay at home and who cannot work as a result will be eligible for statutory sick pay, even if they are not sick themselves. Employers are asked to use discretion and to respect the medical need to self-isolate when making decisions about sick pay.
Those not eligible to receive sick pay, including individuals earning less than an average of £118 per week, some of those working in the gig economy, or self-employed people, are able to claim Universal Credit and or contributory Employment and Support Allowance.
If an employee becomes unwell in the workplace with:
- a new, continuous cough, or
- a high temperature
they should be sent home and advised to follow the government’s ‘stay at home’ guidance.
It is good practice for employers to keep staff updated on all that the business is doing to reduce the risk of exposure in the workplace. Ensuring that all employee contact numbers and emergency contacts are up to date is also important at this time.
Managers should be able to identify the symptoms of coronavirus (listed above) and should be clear on the relevant processes (i.e. sickness reporting and sick pay) and procedures in case someone in the workplace is potentially infected.
The government is providing support to businesses through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Under this, “all UK employers will be able to access support to continue paying part of their employees’ salary for those employees that would otherwise have been laid off during this crisis.”
How is the scheme accessed?
Any UK organisation with employees will be eligible under the Scheme, provided they have a PAYE scheme as at 28 February 2020 and have a UK bank account. Employers will need to designate affected employees as ‘furloughed workers,’ and notify the employees of this change - changing the status of employees remains subject to existing employment law and, depending on the employment contract, may be subject to negotiation. Employees that you are proposing to furlough must have been on the PAYE payroll at 28th February 2020 to be eligible.
Information should be submitted to HMRC about the employees that have been furloughed and their earnings through a new online portal. HMRC will provide further details on the information required.
HMRC will reimburse 80% of furloughed workers wage costs, up to a cap of £2,500 per month. Employers can choose to fund the additional 20% of wage costs but do not have to and if you decide to provide top-up salary in addition to the government grant, any employer NICs and pension contributions on that additional salary will not be funded through the Scheme.
Talk of coronavirus is everywhere (particularly on social media) and employers should be wary of misinformation and make sure they are following the latest government advice. As we have said, the situation continues to change rapidly. No one is expected to be an expert – this is new and unexpected territory for us all – but employers are advised to keep up to date with government guidance.
Please bear in mind that the information contained in this article does not constitute legal advice. Go here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public for the latest government guidance on coronavirus.