Very few people will have missed out on the news that the world is watching with bated breath the potentially lethal spread of the coronavirus.
Although only a handful of cases have been reported in the UK, employers are keen to take steps to minimise the impact the potential outbreak could have upon businesses.
Below we list a number of steps and issues employers may wish to take into account over the coming weeks:-
Employees returning from infected areas
Employers may choose to suspend employees who return from high risk areas as a precaution. Where employees are symptomless, this suspension should be on full pay, regardless of whether the travel took place for business purposes or otherwise. This period of suspension should be kept under review and last for as short a period as possible.
Where employees return from overseas travel and are unwell, the appropriate sickness absence procedure should be followed, as would be the case for any illness
Employees who travel overseas
Employers who have employees who travel overseas for work are urged to monitor the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice in relation to travel. Ideally trips to at risk areas should be postponed, or carried out via an alternative media such as Skype.
There have been numerous reports in the news in relation to increased hostility and harassment towards those who are of an Asian origin due to the outbreak. Employers should be very aware of this issue, and make it clear than any instances of differential treatment or abuse due to an individual’s ethnic origin will amount to discrimination and will not be tolerated. Businesses may also wish to make it clear that inappropriate jokes or ‘banter’ in relation to the issue will not be tolerated.
Where an employer receives a grievance about such an issue, or becomes aware of an incident, this should be dealt with swiftly in accordance with the company’s grievance and disciplinary policy, as would be the case with any other form of discrimination or complaint.
Many employees may be fearful of the potential spread of the virus, and this could lead to increased requests to work from home or precautionary sick days. These fears can be reduced by clear communications from the business in relation to steps that are being taken to reduce risks, such as a stopping at risk travel, the implementation of hand sanitiser regimes, and a clear reporting process for sickness absences.
Monitor official guidance
Given the high profile nature of the outbreak the World Health Organisation and the Foreign Office are issuing regular updates in relation to recommended action and precautions. It is recommended that employers keep abreast of these policies and implement any recommended action.
Review policies and contracts
Given than more employees may seek to take time off due to sickness, it is recommended that employers take this opportunity to review their current sickness absence policies and payment entitlements. In the unlikely event that an employee needs to rely upon these policies in relation to the coronavirus, the policies should be applied in the same manner as any other form of sickness absence.
Employees who are unable to return home
In some very rare circumstances, employees may be detained abroad unable to return home due to quarantine. In these circumstances, that are likely to be temporary, employers are urged to take a pragmatic approach. For example, employees may be permitted to take additional annual leave or periods of unpaid leave until they are able to return to work. A dismissal due to an unavoidable short term absence is unlikely to be deemed fair and could lead to potential Employment Tribunal claims.
Like Adidas, some businesses are experiencing difficulties with trade due to delays in operations in China. Where employers have the benefit of contractual lay off or short term working clauses, these can be used to alleviate detrimental cost consequences as a result of these delays.
The take away advice for employers is that a sensible and reasonable approach should be taken when dealing with any issues that arise as a result of the outbreak. Should you be concerned about the employment law and HR implications of the current situation, please do not hesitate to contact us.
The Department of Health has called the virus a "serious and imminent threat" to public health, but the overall risk to the population is "moderate".