Welcome all to the April edition of the AdviserPlus newsletter.
The clocks have gone forward, and we are officially in British Summer Time, but I think we can all agree, as HR professionals we have never faced a more challenging time.
In today’s newsletter, not surprisingly we will be focusing on the impact of Coronavirus and will build on the 5 important tips for your business we covered in the March edition, by answering 5 key questions we have seen over the last month.
Also, as April is a key time for legislation changes, a number of the measures under the Good Work Plan come into force, a new type of statutory leave Parental Bereavement Leave comes into force and there have been four legislation changes related to coronavirus in March, if you haven’t already, please do review our April legislation update so you are aware of all the relevant changes for your business.
The coronavirus disease, or COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic. As the world adapts to new ways of living and social distancing measures, as an employer you are faced with a huge challenge to adapt your business to these measures and support your employees. Here’s 5 key FAQs we have been asked over the last month.
What are vulnerable or extremely vulnerable people, and how should I support them?
The government has issued guidance on vulnerable and extremely vulnerable people.
Vulnerable people are defined by the government as aged 70 or over, with a specified underlying health condition or pregnant. They are advised to be particularly stringent when following social distancing measures.
Extremely vulnerable people are at a very high risk of developing a severe illness from coronavirus because of an underlying health condition. If someone is considered extremely vulnerable they should have received a letter from the government. They are advised to stay at home and avoid all contact for at least 12 weeks. If an employee thinks they are in this category but have not had a letter, they should contact their GP, or hospital clinician or consult the government website.
Following the latest government guidance on Monday 23 March you should be allowing all your workforce to work from home if possible. It is particularly important that you support those people in the vulnerable and extremely vulnerable group with working from home if this is feasible for their role. If they cannot work from home consider alternatives such as using annual leave or unpaid leave, or perhaps alternative duties they can complete, if reasonable.
It could be unlawful discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy, age or a health condition that’s considered a disability under the Equality act if you unreasonably pressure someone in the vulnerable or extremely vulnerable groups to go to work or discipline them for not going to work.
Social distancing and shielding is not mandatory and it is the employees choice if they follow them. If the employee still wants to come to work understand why and try to agree a suitable alternative, carry out risk assessments if appropriate and protect them as far as possible.
I do not have enough work for my employees due to the impact of coronavirus, what are the options available to me?
There are several options available to you depending on your circumstances.
If the downturn in work is likely to be for a short period of time, you could ask employees to take unpaid leave, with their consent or you could ask them to use annual leave. Unless your contract states otherwise, you can tell employees when to take annual leave, but must provide twice the amount of notice as the length of the annual leave.
If you have a lay-off or short-time working clause in your contract you could implement that. Lay-off refers to not providing work for a period of time and short-time working refers to a reduction in hours. If you do not have a clause in your contract you could seek employee consent to this but will need to ensure you properly consult. Be mindful that if your employee is likely to be laid off for four continuous weeks, or six weeks within a 13-week period, they may be entitled to statutory redundancy pay.
The government have announced a coronavirus job retention scheme, whereby you may be able to claim to cover wages for employees on temporary leave due to coronavirus. For more information on this, see the coronavirus job retention scheme/furlough FAQ.
Finally, if you have no alternative option then you may consider redundancies. The usual redundancy provisions will apply such as avoiding compulsory redundancies and consulting.
What is the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme or furloughing?
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is designed to support employers whose operations have been severely affected by coronavirus. Using the scheme you may be able to claim to cover wages for employees on temporary leave due to coronavirus.
The scheme will be open to all UK employers with a PAYE payroll scheme on or before 28 February and will run from 1 March for a period of at least 3 months.
Using an online HMRC portal you can claim up to 80% of an employee’s wages up to a cap of £2,500 plus the associated employer NIC and minimum automatic pension contribution. You can choose to make up the difference in pay to 100% but do not have to.
The scheme covers employees who were on your payroll on 28 February and includes those who have been made redundant since then if you rehire them. It does not include new starters who were not on your payroll on 28 February.
To change an employee’s status to furloughed you will either need to have a contractual provision allowing you to change their status, or alternatively seek their agreement. It is recommended you confirm any changes in writing.
For full details relating to the scheme including who can be furloughed, how to claim the payment and help if you have short-term cash flow problems in the meantime check the gov.uk website.
Do colleagues have a right to be informed if another colleague has Coronavirus?
This needs to be carefully balanced in terms of the employee’s data protection rights and right to privacy and your duty to care for other employee’s health and safety.
Seek consent from the employee to tell others and carefully consider who you need to tell and what to tell them. For example, you may want to ask the employee what other colleagues they have been in contact with and limit telling them if there is no risk to other colleagues.
If the employee refuses to consent you may still be justified in telling employees who need to know on health and safety grounds. Again, carefully consider who you do need to tell and if possible do not reveal the name of the infected employee.
You may wish to instruct employees not to talk to the media about any cases.
I have had an employee request emergency volunteer leave, what is it and do I have to agree to it?
The Coronavirus Act 2020 creates a new type of statutory leave – Emergency Volunteer Leave which entitles workers (not just employees) to take unpaid leave to help organisations specified by the regulations such as the NHS and social care.
Volunteers will receive an emergency volunteering certificate and will be entitled to be absent for the period specified on the certificate, which will be two, three or four continuous weeks.
Employees will need to provide a minimum of three days’ notice prior to the leave commencing and can only be absent once per volunteering period, which is currently set to 16 weeks.
There are some exceptions to who can take emergency leave, where the worker is employed by a business with a headcount of less than 10, is employed by the Crown or if a relevant member of the House of Lords.
Employees taking emergency volunteering leave are entitled to the same benefits and conditions as if they had not been absent. You do not need to pay an employee during their absence, and they can claim to be compensated for their loss of earnings and expenditure by the Secretary of State.
An employee who is dismissed because they took, sought to take or made use of the benefits of emergency volunteering leave or the employer believed the employee was likely to take such leave will be regarded as unfairly dismissed and the 2-year qualifying period will not apply.
The above guidance was correct at the time of writing this article on 31 March however, you need to be fluid in your approach to coronavirus as the policy and government guidance is changing rapidly. We therefore recommend you regularly check the government official guidance on the gov.uk website and news for updates or contact us if you have any specific questions.
If you have any questions regarding the content of this newsletter, or would like more information to support your business with the changes, please get in touch.