Never in our lifetime have employers had to deal with such a fast-changing, disruptive and stressful environment as that caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Plans made one day have to be changed the next and, most importantly, the details and practicalities of changes made by the government inevitably lag behind their announcements.
Here’s a summary of some of the key recent changes that affect employers, identifying what we do and don’t know about what’s changed.
Working from home now required if possible, not just encouraged
There are new stricter rules in force on people’s ability to travel and requirements for social distancing from Monday 23rd March for an initial period of 3 weeks and this has now been extended for at least another 3 weeks.
The starting point is that everyone should stay at home, including for work, unless they are a key worker, or they really can’t work from home and the work should continue to be done during this period of extra measures
As an example, garages, are able to stay open to service cars and sell petrol; people who need cars to travel to work are able to take their car for an MOT – but not for more routine work, which should be delayed until after these special measures are over.
There is the need to use some judgement about whether work needs to be done away from home, and whether it is essential to carry on – just look at the confusion relating to construction workers and the recent change of heart forced on Sports Direct when they were told to close their stores.
It is clear, however, that if the current measures are thought to be being abused, then the government will introduce even tighter controls.
Employees who have symptoms or who are self-isolating in accordance with Public Health advice are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) from the first day off work
New rules to deal with the coronavirus outbreak are now in force providing that SSP is to be calculated from the first day off work, rather than the fourth. SSP is also now available for eligible individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 or those who are unable to work because they are self-isolating in line with Government advice published from 12th March 2020 onwards, where the person is unable to work because of that isolation.
Small and medium sized businesses (with fewer than 250 employees) will be able to reclaim up to 2 weeks’ SSP because of COVID-19 under the Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme. Whilst government guidance has been issued on some of the details for this, the repayment mechanism is not yet available.
Pregnant employees and those with underlying health conditions need to work from home if possible
The government have said that those with underlying health conditions (defined as anyone instructed to get a flu jab as an adult each year on medical grounds), those aged 70 or over, and pregnant women need particularly to observe social distancing measures.
If you have employees in any of these categories, they need either to work from home or if that isn’t possible, they would potentially need to be suspended on medical/health and safety grounds on full pay. However, it has now been confirmed that they can be considered for furlough under the government’s new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (see below).
Schools closed for all except vulnerable children or the children of key workers
The school closures from Friday 20th March are placing the increased burden of childcare on parents, which is particularly difficult when they are already trying to work from home. They cannot go down the usual route of getting grandparents involved because of the increased risks of the virus among older people, and even key workers are being asked only to send their children into school if they really can’t manage to look after them at home.
Therefore, many employers will need to be even more flexible with staff who are parents, to see if they can work different or reduced hours and they can also now consider putting them on furlough.
Social distancing out of the home needs to be observed
The advice is to keep a minimum of 2 metres from anyone else to avoid infection.
Even if your business is one of those where staff can continue to come into work, you will need to put practical measures into place to enforce social distancing away from others.
One tip is to try and help staff avoid public transport – or if they need to use it, then to try to travel outside rush hours. If at all possible, they should stay 2 metres away from anyone else on the bus or train.
Furlough arrangements have been announced and are ramping up
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was announced by the Chancellor on Friday 20th March with the intention of supporting businesses to ask staff temporarily to go home and not to work for this crisis period, as an alternative to redundancy.
The government will reimburse 80% of the wage cost of these furloughed workers up to a cap of £2500 per month, and grants will include the repayment of employer NI contributions and minimum pension contributions on the revised salary paid.
The scheme covers an initial period of 3 months starting from 1st March. The minimum period of a furlough is 3 weeks, but this can happen more than once, allowing employers to rotate furlough arrangement among different employees as long as the period for each individual is at least 3 weeks long.. Employers can, but are not obliged to, make up the 20% difference in wage cost.
These employees will not be allowed to work for you during their furlough period, so this is not something to use where you want your staff to work reduced hours in this period.
Detailed guidance has been published about which types of employees can be furloughed, in what circumstances, and what information you’ll need to apply for the grant. This has been updated and changed several times already with new information.
There remain unanswered questions about some elements of the scheme, such as what happens with holidays and holiday pay during furlough.
It is hoped the first payments under the scheme will be made by the end of April to cover April payroll. The government hopes to open the scheme to applications on Monday 20th April, but news reports suggest that many more employers than expected have already furloughed staff, so the demands on the system may create problems.
Support for Self Employed Workers announced but not yet ready
On 26th March the government announced a package of support for the self-employed, to help them deal with lost income due to Coronavirus.
A taxable grant of 80% of trading profits, up to a maximum of £2,500 per month, will be paid to certain categories of self-employed and those who work in a partnership, to cover lost income.
To be eligible for the grant, the person needs to have submitted their tax return for the tax year 2018-19, traded in the tax year 2019-20, be trading when they apply, or would be except for COVID-19, intend to continue to trade in the tax year 2020-2021, and have lost trading profits due to COVID-19. The scheme is only open to those with trading profits of less than £50,000 where this is more than half of their total taxable income.
The grant is payable for the 3 month period from April to June, although this may be extended if needed. The person will be contacted by HMRC if they are eligible to be considered, and it is expected that the grant will be paid in arrears at the end of June in one lump sum.
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