With Chinese cities and Italian towns in lockdown, the virus spreading, and with incoming supplies hit, how do employers prepare for the possible consequences?

Reduced hours

JCB is already suspending overtime and is reducing hours further. Employers options for reducing hours vary. Overtime reductions are usually straightforward. Further reductions (short time working) are often achieved through persuasion, because the alternative is usually redundancy.  If you close the business for a period, you are obliged to pay contractual pay unless you can reach a voluntary agreement with employees.These are difficult areas. Lay-offs may be considered, though normally only if the employee contracts allow it.

Can I lay-off employees?

Homeworking

If employees cannot get to work, then home working may be an option, especially for those who do not need to be present in particular places to carry out their work. Employers should have a “home working policy” (or include a clause in individual contracts of employment) and probably a “bring your own device to work policy” (if they are to use their own devices).
New ways of working – top tips to stay ahead

Quarantined employees and pay

As yet, there appear to be no specific guidelines for paying UK employees in quarantine or in voluntary isolation. Of course, guidelines may emerge if the virus becomes widespread. Following SARS, other countries have legislated for compensation to be paid, including making employers responsible for paid leave. ACAS suggest: “it’s good practice … to treat [quarantine or self isolation] as sick leave”. They advise employers to “follow their usual sick pay policy or agree for the time to be taken as holiday”. There is an argument for this, because self-isolated employees may feel they cannot afford to lose pay. They may then come to work anyway, with the obvious risks that creates. However, there could also be conflict between those quarantined because they may have the virus and those (apparently fit employees) who cannot get to work because of travel restrictions. It is the employees responsiblity to get to work and so a failure to do so would not normally be paid.

Discrimination

Employers have a legal duty under the Equality Act to protect employees from discrimination, including harassment and including discrimination by association with someone who has a protected characteristic. It would be discrimination, for example, to re-allocate someone’s duties based on their racial origin.

Employers could also face claims if there is harassment of Chinese or Asian workers or of those associated with them.

In appropriate circumstances it may be wise to explicitly warn that such discrimination would be a disciplinary matter.

Other actions

Employers might consider actions to reduce the risk of spread, such as availability of soap or hand gel, tissues and encouraging good hygiene practices. There is advice here.

In summary

Clearly the impact of coronavirus is still emerging. Please contact us if you have views on the content here or have other points to add; we can update this blog. There is a need to think through what coronavirus might mean for employers.

Malcolm Martin FCIPD

Author Human Resource Practice

Blogs are for general guidance and are not an authoritative statement of the law.

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