Coronavirus: how might your workplace be affected?

A blog entry for employers and employees to consider the rights available to them during the course of the coronavirus outbreak.

 

The Bank of England recently announced an immediate reduction in interest rates from 0.75% to 0.25% but we shall have to see how that impacts upon day to day living, it’s a matter for lenders to decide whether to reduce the interest rates that we all pay, although this measure alone will be unlikely to have any impact upon any fixed rate lending that you have. It is worth reviewing your lending to see whether you are entitled to an interest rate reduction and on any new lending it would be wise to see what interest the lender is charging given the very low base rate now in place.

The Chancellor is about to deliver his budget and we shall make any necessary changes to this guidance following the budget.

We at Kevills have been putting together a “quarantine plan” to ensure the continuity of the business in the event that we are required not to attend the office so we thought that we  would share with you some of the important issues that we have had to consider as they are likely to be relevant to you as well. 

Information for employees and individuals can be found further down this briefing. 

 

Employers.

This note is based upon some of the considerations that you may wish to take into account over the next few months, it is not based on what is going to happen nor what is even likely to happen. 

There are so many variables that it’s difficult to have a fixed business continuity plan, any plan needs to be flexible to take into account the various possible scenarios.  So, for now it’s, pretty much, business as usual but that could change quickly dependent upon the spread of the virus so it’s as well to be prepared. 

Under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 the Local and National Government have the power to apply emergency measures, which could include placing people, businesses, towns, cities and neighbourhoods into quarantine.

The Government have said that they are not, yet, at the stage of asking communities to “self-isolate” but have warned that this may be possible and the numbers being advised to self-isolate is increasing.

The question you may well be asking is how might this impact upon your business? 

This note have been prepared to assist your planning, in particular, as to what your rights are as regards any employees who are affected by the disease, either ill or suspected of carrying the virus.

Anyone who is diagnosed with the virus is entitled to sick pay in the usual way, as you would expect. 

Anyone who suspects that they have the disease or has returned from a high risk area have been advised by Government to self-isolate.  Anyone who is in “self-isolation” is regarded by the Government as “sick” and they take the view that employers’ sick pay policies will apply.  We have reservations as to whether this is an accurate view as to the actual legal position at present but you may consider it safer to accept the Government’s position.  If you do then you will be liable to pay your employees statutory sick pay (SSP) or whatever sick pay is offered pursuant to the employees’ contract of employment or company sick pay scheme.

As you will know employees can self-certify for 7 days whereas the minimum self-isolation period is 14 days.  For the time being, you are entitled to request a sick note from any employee who is “sick” for longer than 7 days.  What we do not know, yet, is whether a doctor will issue a sick note for a patient who is self-isolating. 

Please note that the Government has announced that employees in self isolation will be entitled to statutory sick pay from day 1 of their self-isolation. 

If you accept that your employee is self-isolating for legitimate reasons you may wish to consider whether to insist upon them either producing a sick note or returning to work given the health concerns that you might have for yourself and your employees.  We would suggest that you take a cautious approach in the circumstances.

Please note that a member of staff who is looking after a sick relative may be entitled to paid leave, if this arises and you need legal advice please let us know but, for general information, please see this link to the Government website:

https://www.gov.uk/time-off-for-dependants

Of course, financial consequences will arise if a significant number or all of your employees are affected.  There is no easy answer to this at the moment but we will keep an eye on what financial support the Government may offer to businesses, the budget is expected to address this in some way. 

You may wish to consult your business insurance to see if you have any protection.  It is worth, generally, considering your policies of insurance to see what, overall, cover is offered where the provisions of the Civil Contingencies Act are applied as there may be exclusions. 

Otherwise you may wish to look at your cash reserves and, if necessary, speak to your bank manager about what support they may offer during any period of disruption.  RBS has announced that it is making £5bn. available to SME’s so if you are their customer it is worth making early enquiries.  Other banks may follow suit. 

It is worthwhile keeping an eye on credit and try to ensure that your bills are paid promptly so that cash flow is in order should the worst come to the worst and you have a period of no or little productivity.   

We have asked Chorley Borough Council how a town wide quarantine would work in practice, which we assume will be similar to other Local Authorities.  For example, would we be able to attend our places of work if the town is placed in quarantine or would we have to work from home?  We are awaiting guidance from them at this moment in time.

We, as a firm, are preparing for, what we believe is likely to be worst case scenario, namely a town wide quarantine.  We believe, at the moment, that if the town is placed in lock down we would, still, be able to move freely within the town so we could attend the office.  However, staff who live outside the town may not be able to attend work so we are planning for key staff to work from home in those circumstances. 

We do not believe that staff who are unable to attend the office because of lock down rather than because they are in self isolation would be regarded as sick so we are working on how we intend to support our staff in those circumstances.  Of course, key staff will still be working but others may not be.  From your point of view we do not believe that there is any current statutory obligation to pay your staff if they are not permitted to attend the office because of a lock-down.  Unless the Government looks at changes to the law, it will be a matter for you to decide what to do with staff in those circumstances but, subject to what your employees’ contracts of employment say, there would be no legal obligation to pay staff who are not working.  If they can work from home then that would probably work out best for both of you and it may be that you can agree to the employee using some of their annual leave during such a period.    

If you ask your staff to self-isolate, where under current guidance they are not required to do so, this may be regarded as requiring them to take “garden leave”, that is a different position and you will, probably, be obliged to pay them their normal contractual entitlement.  

 

Employees, self-employed and individuals.

Much of what we have set out above is relevant to you but the main point to note is that the Government is expected to make announcements to assist, and we will update this note as and when necessary.

The main point to note is that if you are an employee or a worker you will be entitled to SSP as a minimum if you are sick or self- isolating but you should check your contract of employment as your contract may give you better rights than the statutory entitlement.  Where your contract makes better provision then your contract prevails, you are entitled to the higher rights.

If you are self-employed the position is far less certain, you have no entitlement to SSP.  You should check your policies of insurance to see if you have any cover and obtain legal advice if you are adversely affected.

Some people who are deemed to be self-employed are, upon true construction, employees regardless of your formal status so it’s worth taking advice if you believe that you are, in fact, an employee as this will impact upon your entitlement:

https://www.acas.org.uk/checking-your-employment-rights

On a general note some mortgage lenders are preparing to permit a payment holiday of up to 3 months but this will be in the lenders’ discretion so you should keep an eye on what your lender is prepared to offer.

Finally, we do need to say that this information is for general guidance and intended to assist you in terms of your planning.  As such these notes should not be relied upon for your specific concerns, you will always need specific legal advice.  

The position may well change if the Government invokes the powers given to it under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 or passes other emergency legislation.  As such we all have to wait and see to some extent. 

If you need specific advice or general advice on matters that I have not covered or you need any help with regards to your own plans please let us know.

 

Simon Robinson, Partner at Kevills Solicitors.

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