Expert comment: What can employers do about coronavirus?

Hayley Trovato, Senior Associate in the Employment department has commented on the points that employers need to be aware of around coronavirus:

There are a number of issues that may arise for employers in connection with the coronavirus outbreak. In order to prepare for this, there are a number of things employers may wish to consider.

Refusal to Attend Work

You may be faced with a situation where you have employees that are afraid of catching the coronavirus and do not want to come into work.

It is important to listen to any concerns and if you believe them to be genuine then you should try and protect the health and safety of staff where possible – such as offering remote working. If an employee is still refusing to come in or if remote working is not possible, another option may be that they could take this time off as holiday or as unpaid leave. However, as an employer, you don’t have to agree to this. Any total refusal by an employee to attend work could result in disciplinary action. However, If the employee who is refusing to come to work is pregnant or at high risk, it is wise to be even more flexible. Refusals to allow employees to stay at home or disciplining them for not attending could result in them bringing legal claims such as constructive unfair dismissal if there is a genuine health and safety risk in being at work. The best practice Is to act reasonably to ensure employees are not at any unnecessary risk.

Employers have a duty to take steps that are reasonably necessary to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their employees, including those who are particularly at risk. Employees also have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and that of people they work with. They must cooperate with their employer to enable it to comply with its duties under health and safety laws Employees who refuse to cooperate, or who recklessly risk their own health or that of colleagues or customers, could be disciplined.

If an employee is not actually sick but you tell them not to come to work then they should receive their usual pay.

Race discrimination

There have been recent reports of the increase in instances of discrimination and harassment towards people of Chinese ethnic origin and employers need to be vigilant to the risk of direct and indirect race discrimination claims. Employers could be vicariously liable if employees racially harass other colleges, even if they don’t know about and would not approve. In order to avoid liability employers will have to show they took all “reasonable steps” to prevent their employees behaving in this way. This means they should have a clear and easily accessible diversity and anti-harassment policy, ensuring staff are all trained on equality issues. There should be a zero-tolerance policy on any negative or hostile comments.

Practical Steps

In the event of the coronavirus spreading more widely in the UK then ACAS recommend some simple steps to help protect the health and safety of their staff

Employers should:

  • keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace
  • make sure everyone’s contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date
  • make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes, for example, sickness reporting and sick pay, and procedures in case someone in the workplace develops the virus
  • make sure there are clean places to wash hands with hot water and soap, and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly
  • give out hand sanitisers and tissues to staff, and encourage them to use them
  • consider if protective face masks might help for people working in particularly vulnerable situations
  • consider if any travel planned to affected areas is essential
  • If the employer takes measures such as asking staff to wear protective face masks, they must not single anyone out, for example, based on their race or ethnicity.

This article is for information only and does not constitute legal advice. For professional legal advice on employment matters around coronavirus, please contact Hayley Trovato. 

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