Back to Work – The Immediate Issues for Employers
Now that employers are beginning to prepare their workplace for life after lockdown, we look at some of the matters they will be considering.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has reportedly been utilised by 140,000 firms in the UK, which has in turn led to nearly a quarter of employees in Britain being furloughed.
However, the scheme is due to end on the 30th June and although this may be extended, at some stage employers will need to consider the position of furloughed staff. Can they afford to pay staff that return at the end of their furlough period? Is there enough work for all returning employees?
It may be that redundancies are unavoidable and employers will need to ensure that they can act quickly and fairly. If there is a large pool of employees that are being considered for redundancy, employers will need to consult with representatives of affected employees. Such consultations will need to be started at least 30 days prior to the date the first redundancies will take place.
In any event, employers will want to avoid potential claims for unfair dismissal if they fail to adopt a fair procedure for making employees redundant. It is not too early to consider what action may be required.
Phased returns of all employees
It is likely that social distancing, in some form or another, will be required to mitigate the future spread of Covid-19. This may make it difficult for some employers to bring back all staff that had previously been furloughed or working from home.
Employers will therefore be considering the possibility of phased returns. For example, introducing a rota system to allow employees to work from home for part of the week, or a “Week A, Week B system” under which alternating groups of employees attend the office at different times, or staggered working hours (particularly important to help any government plans to reduce the impact of commuter rush hours on the potential spread of the virus).
Some employers may prefer certain employees to return to work earlier than others, depending upon the nature of their job or importance of their role.
Another measure that employers may wish to adopt is to phase returns based on their employees’ distance from the office. Employees that are able to walk or cycle to the office may be prioritised, as they present a significantly lower risk of contamination than those employees that will need to travel by public transport to get to the office.
Employers will want to choose the right system that works for them as a business and to strike a balance between protecting the wellbeing of their staff and ensuring the future viability of their business. And they will want full engagement from their employees: to build on the team work that has been such a striking feature of the measures to date – and to avoid facing issues that could disrupt their business at the worst possible time.
Health and Safety
One of the key considerations for employers will be how they can ensure that returning employees will not be exposed to a higher risk of contracting the virus. Employers will need to do as much as they can to ensure that they have taken sufficient steps to limit potential harm, and below are just some of ways an employer may decide to do this:
- Arranging for the temperature of all employees that enter the building to be taken. Those with high temperatures should be asked to work from home;
- Providing safety masks and/or gloves to employees, or encouraging employees to bring in their own masks if they have one;
- Ensuring employees’ workstations are sufficiently spaced out in order to comply with social distancing measures;
- Giving employees thorough advice about measures to reduce the risk of contamination, including proper handwashing and the need to avoid physical contact with others; and
- Ensuring there is effective monitoring systems of all employees’ wellbeing. This not only includes ensuring that coronavirus symptoms are being monitored, but also the mental wellbeing of staff members.
Of course, the most important consideration for an employer is to follow government advice as rigorously as possible.
Employees are entitled to 5.6 weeks’ paid holiday in a leave year. The employment contract will in most circumstances state how many days the employee is entitled to carry over in to the next leave year. The government has announced that, where leave has been affected by the coronavirus, up to 4 weeks untaken leave may be carried over for the following 2 leave years.
This means that employers could be faced with a large number of their workforce requesting annual leave once lockdown restrictions are lifted. Employers are only able to refuse a leave request if they have a good reason to do so: this can easily become a subject of dispute. Employers can reduce the potential issues of having too many employees off at once if they have a fair system in place and communicate it effectively to employees.
In respect of furloughed workers, annual leave continues to accrue during periods of furlough. As employees are entitled to full pay whilst on annual leave, employers are required to top up the remaining 20% (or more) of the employee’s wage if they take annual leave whilst on furlough. This may be a financial burden too far for some employers, or an attractive possibility to others.
If employees don’t take annual leave during their furlough period, it will increase their unused leave for the remainder of the annual leave year when perhaps the business needs all hands on deck. And whilst it may not be possible to require employees to take holiday whilst on furlough, some employees may agree to do so given the additional pay.
Employers will need to consider their current holiday policies, check relevant terms in their employees’ contract and act appropriately.