Dealing with coronavirus in the workplace

Tina Chander is the head of the employment law team at Wright Hassall

Tina Chander, head of the employment law team at law firm Wright Hassall, discusses what legal action can be taken and what is permitted by law if one of your employees contracts the notorious coronavirus.

While the coronavirus outbreak (officially Covid-19) has raised serious health concerns, its impact on stock markets around the world has become an issue for businesses.

The government has now confirmed that workers will get statutory sick pay from the first day off work, not the fourth, to help contain coronavirus, arguing people who self-isolate are helping protect others from the virus and should not be penalised, but this raises 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.

Given the action that should be taken if an employee suspects they may have picked up the virus, it would be sensible to designate an available space as an ‘isolation room’, to which any such employee could retire whilst calling 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 hand-washing in particular and the length of time suggested to do it properly, organisations should advise all their employees to wash their hands thoroughly and let them know they will not be penalised for the extra time taken.

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 seriousness of the virus, the exact nature of the symptoms and concern about the situation regarding issues such as sick pay may lead to some employees coming to work despite having contracted the virus, without necessarily 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, 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, even if light-hearted, may easily slip over the line to become unlawful harassment and/or discrimination, for which an employer may be liable.

Taking reasonable steps can include having well publicised diversity and harassment policies and training all staff on the issue. Managers must also be trained about their responsibility to identify and prevent discriminatory behaviour.