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Coronavirus – Implications for Employers

3rd March 2020

Employers are preparing for the spread of the Coronavirus in the UK.

As matters stand, the outbreak has been relatively small and isolated.

However, if the virus spreads more widely it is likely to have employment law implications.

With this in mind we have tried to answer, below, a number of the questions which we have been increasingly asked as the situation has developed.

  1. What steps should an employer take?

Employers have an obligation to protect the health and safety of their employees.

At the most basic level, and as a reminder, employers should issue guidance to encourage their staff to wash their hands and provide additional resources such as hand sanitising gels to facilitate this.

We would also encourage employers to ensure managers know how to spot the symptoms of the coronavirus and to whom to pass on their suspicions if they are worried an employee is exhibiting those symptoms.

Subject to the nature of your business it would be prudent to restrict any business travel to the areas of the world currently acutely affected, and also asking customers and visitors to your workplace if they have visited one of the affected areas over the last 14 days. Where necessary you may wish to consider postponing meetings or engaging in them by alternative means wherever possible, i.e. via telephone or video conferencing.

  1. Do I have to pay an employee who has self-isolated?

This will depend on what your contract of employment says.

In the absence of a specific clause, if the employee is self-isolating and is not “sick” then they are not entitled to sick pay. However, please note that if you have instigated the isolation and instructed your employee to remain away from the office for medical reasons then it is likely that you have suspended on medical grounds and in such circumstances you would be required to pay the employee their salary in the normal way.

It is possible that the government may change the rules relating to Statutory Sick Pay which could trigger an entitlement to a payment under the provisions of that regime.

Practically, an employee may self certify as being sick for the first 7 days anyway and so would therefore be entitled to sick pay for that period. 

  1. Do I have to pay an employee who has taken time off to care for a relative who is suffering from the Coronavirus?

This will depend on the leave provisions of your contract.  In the absence of a specific clause an employee is entitled to time off to arrange care for a dependant but they are not entitled to be paid for this absence.

Practically, it is possible that an employee will seek to use annual leave to cover such an absence.

  1. I would like to suspend an employee who I suspect has visited an affected area but they are insisting on coming into work.  Are they entitled to be paid?  Could they sue me for breach of contract?

An employee suspended on medical and/or health and safety grounds to prevent infection will likely be entitled to be paid.

The right to pay will only be overridden if a) the employee becomes sick then the normal sickness absence rules may apply, and b) the employee refuses reasonable requests and instructions on the parts of the Employer.

Whilst it is likely such an employee has an implied right to work, if they are getting paid during this period it is unlikely a court would consider such a suspension to be a breach of contract, and instead may treat it as a medical suspension as allowed under the Employment Rights Act 1996.

If you would like any further information on employers or employees rights please contact Jason Alcock at jalcock@ansonssolicitors.com or 01543 267196