Supporting employees through the COVID-19 pandemic

Whether you employ a handful of employees or your team has seen exponential growth over the past few years, knowing where you stand in the coming weeks and months in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t crystal clear.

We spoke to the team of employment solicitors at Harper James Solicitors to get more information on how you can support your employees while protecting your bottom line, plus more detail on the government support available to you as an employer.

What do I need to put in place for my workforce?

If your business is not on the government-provided list of businesses that should close temporarily, and your employees are still able to work, it’s good practice for you to put measures in place to keep your employees safe. ACAS has detailed some best practice guidance for employers that may help you:

  • Put extra measures in place for those considered vulnerable should they contract the virus.
  • Staff should void travel wherever possible.
  • Hold remote meetings and calls in place of attending meetings.
  • Make sure your management team are aware of the symptoms of COVID-19 and know what to look out for should an employee present with those symptoms and need to self-isolate.
  • Make sure the relevant people are clear on the necessary procedures such as sick pay and leave.
  • Make sure that your staff’s emergency contact numbers are correct and up to date.
  • If your workforce is required to come into the workplace, make sure you provide them with the means to wash their hands and provide them with tissues and hand sanitiser where possible.
  • Try to keep your employees up to date as to any changes that may be relevant to protect them from contracting or spreading the virus further.

SSP and self-isolating employees: How do I claim it back?

Following legislation changes, the government will be helping businesses by allowing them to reclaim statutory sick pay, paid out as a result of the coronavirus crisis. The refund will cover two weeks of SSP for each employee, but it will only apply to those employers with less than 250 employees. The rebate system is not yet in place, but the government is working on the best way to orchestrate the refund for businesses as soon as possible.

How do my employees prove they have contracted the virus if they are unable to visit their GP?

If an employee is off sick because they are following government guidance to self-isolate due to contracting the virus, because they have symptoms, or because a family member they live with has symptoms, then it’s unlikely that they will be able to visit their GP to get a sick note. NHS 111 has put a system in place so that employees in this position can obtain an isolation note. If required, after seven days of self-certifying, your employee can obtain an isolation note on the NHS website.

Will I be able to 'lay off' employees for a temporary period?

The government has launched the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. This will help those businesses who may have otherwise laid off employees to retain them. HMRC will be paying 80% of your employees’ wages, up to £2,500 per month. This may help you to retain employees and pick back up where you left off before the crisis. HMRC is due to provide more details on the scheme as soon as possible, and the Chancellor has promised that the cost of your employee wages will be backdated from 1 March.

What if my employee suffers from anxiety and refuses to come to work for fear of contracting the virus?

If an employee does not want to come to work due to exacerbated anxiety due to the fear of contracting the virus, there are several options. Take reasonable steps to make sure the workplace is clean and safe for the employee to work in, for example, by providing hand sanitiser where possible. If they still do not want to come into the workplace, consider more flexible working options or allowing them to take holiday or unpaid leave.

If an employee living with anxiety has found that the pandemic has exacerbated their symptoms, and prevents them from attending work, they may also need to take sick leave. In this instance, sick pay or SSP may be the most appropriate way for you to deal with the situation.

What if an employee has to look after a dependent who has the virus?

Usually, if an emergency situation arises and an employee needs to take leave to support a dependent, a reasonable amount of leave can be taken. This also applies to those who may need to take leave to take care of children who may be off school currently, and for those who need to support dependent relatives who may have contracted the virus and are unable to fetch essentials such as food and medicine. Depending on the employee’s contract and your current policies, they may be eligible for pay while taking leave for this reason. There is no statutory right to pay your employee for this leave, but it is prudent to check their contracts and to potentially seek legal advice.

The current situation is certainly a minefield for employers to navigate and knowing the best thing for your employees and for your business, currently, is tricky. If you have more questions about next steps, your rights, and what you may be entitled to from the government, make sure you seek expert legal advice. The team at Harper James Solicitors has put together a hub providing legal support for businesses following the COVID-19 pandemic and can provide you with specialist employment law support to support your business at this time.