Coronavirus: A guide for employers - part one

In January this year, we saw the outbreak of Coronavirus in Wuhan, China, but little did we know at the time the impact that this was going to have on the rest of the world and here in the UK.

The number of cases in the UK is continuing to rise and the World Health Organisation has declared Coronavirus a global health emergency. It is therefore important that employers have a plan in place for what they should do if an employee risks bringing the virus into the workplace.

Imagine the scenario where an employee comes into work showing the symptoms of Coronavirus. Is your business prepared for this? Do you know your obligations as an employer in respect of whether an employee should be entitled to sick pay if they (a) have Coronavirus or (b) are in quarantine or self-isolation? This guide will help you implement a policy for this.

Sick pay when someone is off work due to Coronavirus

It’s worth noting that the business’ usual sick pay policy and pay entitlements under an employee’s contract still apply to anyone who is off sick due to developing symptoms of Coronavirus and they have gone into self-isolation for this reason.

Additionally, where an employee is not sick, but a doctor has advised an employee to not go into work and to self-isolate, they should receive Statutory Sick Pay (“SSP”) for the period they are off work. The doctor should put this into a written notice, however, in practice this may not always happen. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister, also recently announced plans to ensure employees will be entitled to SSP from the first day they are off sick from work rather than the fourth day, as is normally the case, as they should not be penalised for isolating themselves to protect others from getting the virus.

Sick pay when an employee is told to self-isolate
If an Employer has reason to suspect that an employee may have Coronavirus (perhaps because an employee has recently travelled to an infected area or has been in close contact with someone who has) then they may tell the employee not to come into work and to self-isolate for 14 days. In this case, the employer should continue to pay the employee as normal unless their employment contract provides otherwise. However, if there is provision for the employee not be paid in their contract in these circumstances then an employer may wish to consider the consequences of this as, without pay, the employee may attempt to attend work and risk potentially infecting others in the work place. It would, therefore, be good practice to continue to pay an employee that you have told to self-isolate irrespective of what is written in their employment contract. Of course, an employer could ask an employee to work from home, where possible, whilst self-isolating themselves.

Sick pay when an employee refuses to attend work

An employee may be reluctant to come into work due to the risks of them potentially catching the virus. This may be understandable particularly if they have underlying health conditions making them more susceptible to the virus. However, in this case where an employee chooses to self-isolate but without advice to do so from the employer or a doctor, an employer is not bound to pay the employee and they are not entitled to SSP.

Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service' (ACAS) advice in this circumstance would be for an employer to try to reassure the employee to listen to any concerns that an employee may have and highlight any measures that are being put in place in the workplace to prevent or minimise any spread of infection.

Again an employer could also suggest that the employee could work from home or alternatively could offer flexible working if possible. Additionally, an agreement could be made that an employee takes some annual leave or unpaid leave although the employer is not obliged to suggest or agree to this. ACAS does highlight however, that if an employee still refuses to attend work unreasonably then the employer can take disciplinary action. Of course, an employer may also wish to consider the effect of fear of catching Coronavirus can do to an employee’s mental health. If an employee takes time off for stress or anxiety as a result of their concerns regarding Coronavirus then the employee would be entitled to sick pay under the employer’s normal procedures.

Perhaps the best advice to give to employers at the moment is that if you are in doubt regarding your obligations to employees and sick pay entitlement then get in touch with the Blackadders Employment Team who are on hand to deal with your queries.

Fiona Knox, trainee solicitor

Fiona Knox, trainee solicitor