Legal ramifications of COVID-19 for employers

Feedback to the North East Growth Hub COVID-19 survey shows that employers are concerned about the legal ramifications of Coronavirus. Here Jackie Turner, Partner and Head of Employment and HR at St James’ Square Law Firm looks at the most pressing issues facing businesses right now.

What if an employee is required to self-isolate?
If an employee is self-isolating in line with government guidance but is capable of work, they may be entitled to SSP if they are self-isolating on written advice from a GP or NHS 111. If the employee is able to work remotely during the period of isolation, they ought to receive their normal pay if they can work their normal hours. The Government has confirmed that SSP will be payable from day 1, rather than the usual day 4. 

What if an employee is too ill to work?
Where an employee is too ill to work, whether due to Covid-19 or some other reason, they are entitled to sick leave and pay in accordance with their contract of employment. 

What if an employee needs to look after their children?
If an employee cannot work due to childcare issues, you should aim to agree with them either a period of unpaid leave (it is likely that the situation is covered by the emergency leave for dependents provisions in employment legislation) or home-working, either with normal or reduced hours. They may also choose to, or you could require them to, take a period of annual leave to cover some of the period.

Can I ask employees to stay at home?
Where an employee is ready, willing and able to work (in other words, they are not sick or self-isolating) and you do not provide them with work, they are entitled to full pay and benefits unless you agree something different with them. 

What are my options if I cannot afford to continue paying staff?
On 20 March, the government announced a scheme to help businesses who may otherwise have had no option but to make staff redundant.  Further details are outlined below. Otherwise, it remains open to employers to implement redundancies or to agree a period of short time working with staff, where they work fewer hours for proportionately less pay.

How does the job retention scheme work?
The government has announced that all UK employers will have access to financial support to continue to pay part of employees’ salaries for employees that would otherwise have been laid off/made redundant.  The employer must designate affected employees as “furloughed workers” and notify the employees of this change. The information from the government on what is furlough leave is currently very sparse and furlough is not a concept currently recognised in employment law. 

Once you have designated your furloughed workers, you will submit earnings information on a new HMRC online portal. HMRC will then reimburse 80% of furloughed workers’ wage costs up to £2,500 per month. To qualify for the scheme, employees must not undertake any work for their employer during the period of furlough leave. The employer guidance is currently silent on what happens to the other 20% of wages but other information suggests that the employer can choose whether or not the fund the difference.

Source: Jackie Turner and St James’ Square Law Firm