19 March 2020

Coronavirus Q&A for employers

How can I keep my business going during Coronavirus?

Coronavirus has disrupted normal life, and businesses face real difficulty – here, we set out some of the most common questions our employment team are getting from clients.

We know that every business will have its own unique circumstances, but these questions and answers are a good starting point.

They key points are:

  • check your policies and contracts
  • talk to your employees
  • make sure that you are on the right side of the law; if you are not sure, check.

What sick pay does the company need to pay?

You need to pay statutory sick pay (SSP) from day one if employees are off sick due to coronavirus or suspected coronavirus.

You also need to pay SSP from day one if employees are self-isolating on government and/or medical guidance, and they cannot work from home.

If your business operates an enhanced company sick pay scheme, make sure that it is applied correctly – that might mean where the employee is off sick due to actual or suspected coronavirus and not if they are self-isolating, so do check.

My employee has said her child’s school is closed and she can’t come in. What do we do?

Employees have a statutory right to take unpaid leave to deal with emergencies in relation to dependents, for example if their child’s school is shut. This is to allow them to make alternative arrangements to deal with the disruption to care and is not simply time off for them to provide childcare themselves, although this might be a problem when other childcare options are limited.

You can choose to pay for such leave, but it is your choice.

If you think employees will need significant time off (perhaps because of school closures) you need to talk to them about options, including working from home, flexible working or reduced hours. Alternatively they could use annual leave or unpaid leave.

Our employees can’t do their work from home. What do we do?

If your employees can’t work from home, there are different options to consider, including:

  • Allowing them to continue working from their normal place of work (if it stays open) but with measures in place to reduce the risk of infection
  • Giving employees alternative work to do at home, if possible
  • Allowing/requiring employees to use their holiday entitlement
  • Offering a period of unpaid leave
  • Considering temporary layoffs
  • Agreeing that the employee becomes a furlough worker and is retained even if no work is available for them and they are paid 80% of their salary under the Government scheme

If you’re in this situation, you’ll need to check employees’ contracts to see what is and isn’t provided for.

We have two new members of staff due to join soon. Can we get out of this?

If you have made a job offer but not it hasn’t been accepted, so no binding contract has been formed, you can withdraw the offer ahead of the start date.

If the offer has been accepted, it’s more difficult to withdraw it, but not impossible. You might be able to delay the start date or give notice to terminate the contract even before they have started work for you.

The offer letter and contract will determine which of these options are available to you and whether you will have to pay them anything.

My company’s turnover has plummeted and it will be like this for the next few months but might pick up. I can’t afford to pay the staff and just wait for business to get back to normal. How can I cut my wage bill temporarily?

You could:

  • Dismiss staff with less than two years’ service – they are entitled to their contractual notice period or a payment in lieu of notice and any accrued holiday. If this is managed properly, staff with less than two years’ service are not entitled to redundancy pay and cannot bring a tribunal claim for unfair dismissal.
  • Make staff redundant – for staff with over two years’ service, you will need to follow a fair redundancy procedure including adopting and applying fair selection criteria, consulting with staff, considering alternative employment and providing a right of appeal against the decision to dismiss. It is also important to note that if someone has been given notice of termination and you change your mind because business has picked up again and you want to withdraw the notice, the employee needs to agree as well.
  • Temporary layoff – you can only do this if the contract allows for it. In some circumstances, an employee who is laid off can still be entitled to a redundancy payment.
  • Agree a period of unpaid leave – it is very unlikely you would be able to impose unpaid leave on staff but, faced with the possibility of job losses, staff may be willing to agree a period of unpaid leave as an alternative. If you recognise trade unions, it may be possible to agree on this with the union/s to avoid job losses.
  • Vary contracts – for example changing hours of work, pay or benefits. How the contracts are worded will determine whether you can do this, but this may be the only way for a business to survive and avoid widespread job losses.
  • Treat the employee as a furlough worker and the Government scheme will cover 80% of their wages (subject to a cap of £2,500 per month)

These questions and answers are general – your circumstances might differ, so if you need advice, please contact Guy Hollebon in our Wye Valley office at ghollebon@hcrlaw.com or on 01989 561429 or 07860 924361.

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Guy Hollebon, Legal Director

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