Employment Law

Coronavirus and the workplace - what next?

December 10, 2020
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Employers and employees have had a lot of obstacles to overcome since the Coronavirus pandemic took hold in the UK back in March. Specifically, businesses have had to navigate the Government’s ever-changing guidelines on working from home and the Furlough Scheme in its various iterations; whilst putting the necessary protective measures in place to keep their staff safe.

David Baynton and Lydia Cammiade from our Employment team highlight the main areas where our clients have been seeking advice and provide general guidance on good practice for all employers in these challenging times.  

Keeping your employees safe

Our clients’ primary concern is keeping their staff safe, especially when in an environment which may expose them to risks of contracting Coronavirus. Employers must ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees, as far as it is reasonably practicable to do so.

Currently, Government guidance is that “You must work from home if you can effectively do so”.  Where it is not possible to work from home or when employees return in greater numbers once restrictions are eased, it is crucial that businesses put measures in place to keep employees safe.

Although many businesses will have already conducted a Coronavirus risk assessment, this alone is not enough to meet health and safety obligations.

Based on your initial risk assessment, you should implement a safe system of work and ensure that this is followed by all staff. The measures you will need to take will be specific to your industry, business and workplace.

Failure to comply with your health and safety obligations can have costly consequences for your business; including criminal sanctions, personal injury claims or unfair dismissal claims if, for example, you dismiss an employee for raising health and safety concerns.

Supporting mental health and wellbeing

In addition to physical safety precautions, many clients have raised concerns for the mental wellbeing of their staff - and are seeking advice on what they should be doing as a responsible employer.

Employers are right to be concerned; a survey conducted by ACAS at the end of March found that two fifths of employees working from home during the Coronavirus crisis felt stressed, anxious or experienced mental health difficulties.

Stress can lead to ill-health and long-term sickness absence - which would be detrimental to your business.

A Stress and Wellbeing policy can demonstrate your commitment to good mental health and wellbeing. The policy can do the following: 

  • Provide training to help staff recognise and understand the causes of work-related stress and strategies to deal with it;
  • Appoint mental health champions (staff responsible for raising awareness of mental health issues and who are trained to provide support); and
  • Provide information about support available such as counselling through an Employee Assistance Programme.

For more information about mental health in the workplace, David Baynton and Elliot Silk (Head of Commercial at Sanlam) discuss managing mental health in the workplace during the Coronavirus pandemic in their webinar recorded earlier this year. To watch the webinar, click here.

Making use of the furlough scheme

Our clients have been seeking advice on how to utilise the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme which will continue until the end of March 2021.

The Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement extending the Scheme was made only hours before it was due to close on 31 October. Therefore, many employers will have already taken measures in preparation for its end. 

If you were planning to bring staff back full time (or part time under the Job Support Scheme), but now wish to keep staff on furlough leave, this should be agreed with employees and evidenced in writing.

You can also bring back employees who have recently been made redundant so they can benefit under the Scheme but only if the employee was employed on 23 September 2020 and a PAYE RTI submission was made to HMRC between 20 March and 30 October 2020 notifying payment of earnings for that employee.  

However, when deciding whether to bring back employees recently made redundant, employers should be aware that for claim periods starting on or after 1 December 2020 you cannot claim for any days during which the employee is serving a statutory or contractual notice period (for reasons of redundancy or otherwise).  Therefore, if you subsequently make these employees redundant again, you will be required to pay their notice pay in full.

The information above is not and should not be taken to be legal advice. You should not take action or omit to take action based on this information.

If you require any help on the issues raised above, our colleagues would be delighted to help you with any queries.

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Coronavirus and the workplace - what next?

David Baynton

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