COVID-19 - Advice for Employers and Employees
As Coronavirus in Northern Ireland continues, It is important that businesses and workers know what their rights and responsibilities are when it comes to protecting staff and themselves from the spread of the virus.
- Staying at home and social distancing
- Vulnerable people and those at high risk
- Self-isolation and sick pay
- If the workplace needs to close temporarily
- Using holiday
- If an employee needs time off work to look after someone
- If someone has coronavirus symptoms at work
- Good practice steps for employers
- Disciplinary and grievance procedures during the coronavirus pandemic
- Non-essential shops and public spaces closures
- Emergency Volunteering Leave
- Vaccination Guidance
- More coronavirus advice
For general advice people should contact the Public Health Agency as their advice continues to be refined to reflect the changing situation.
Staying at home and social distancing
Current government advice includes:
- Everyone must help stop coronavirus spreading.
- Only go outside for permitted reasons. If you go out, stay 2 metres (6ft) away from other people.
- Avoid touching your face and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
- You can spread the virus even if you don't have symptoms.
- You must wear a face covering when in shops and retail outlets
Employers should support their workforce to take these steps. This might include agreeing to more flexible ways of working.
For full guidance on staying at home, see:
If the workplace is open
Employers have a 'duty of care' for staff, customers and anyone else who visits the workplace. This means they must do all they reasonably can to support their health, safety and wellbeing.
To make the workplace safe, employers must:
- encourage staff to work from home, wherever possible
- follow the workplace safety guidance here
To get advice on working safely during coronavirus from the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI) you can:
- find coronavirus advice on the HSENI website
- call 0800 0320 121
Working from home
For any employee working from home, the employer should:
- pay the employee as usual;
- keep in regular contact; and
- check on the employee's health and wellbeing.
Find out more about:
- health and safety for homeworking on the HSENI website
If an employee does not want to go to work
Some people might feel they do not want to go to work if they're afraid of catching coronavirus. This could particularly be the case for those who are at higher risk.
An employer should listen to any concerns staff may have and should take steps to protect everyone.
For example, they could offer extra car parking where possible so that people can avoid using public transport.
If an employee still does not want to go in, they may be able to arrange with their employer to take the time off as holiday or unpaid leave. The employer does not have to agree to this.
If an employee refuses to attend work without a valid reason, it could result in disciplinary action.
Vulnerable people and those at high risk
The government advises anyone who’s at a higher risk of getting a severe illness if they catch coronavirus (‘vulnerable people’) to take particularly strict social distancing measures.
Although everyone is advised to practice social distancing, it’s particularly important for those in a vulnerable group.
Employers must be especially careful and take extra steps for anyone in their workforce who is in a vulnerable group.
For example, those who:
• have a long-term health condition, for example asthma, diabetes or heart disease, or a weakened immune system as the result of medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy;
• are pregnant;
• are aged 70 or over
Find out more about social distancing and vulnerable people on The Public Health Agency website.
Find advice on pregnancy and coronavirus on the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists' website.
Shielding for extremely vulnerable people
Some people will receive a letter from their GP to say they should take extra steps to protect (or 'shield') themselves because of an underlying health condition. This is for people who are at very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus.
Employees should talk to their employer as soon as they can if they:
- have been told to start shielding; or
- think they might get a letter telling them to start shielding.
If an employee receives a letter telling them to start shielding, they should stay at home for at least 12 weeks.
Employers should support staff following shielding guidelines. This might be a distressing or difficult time, so it's important for employers to keep in touch during any absence.
Any details about the employee's medical condition must be kept confidential, unless the employee says they can be shared.
Discrimination and unfair treatment
If an employee is still being asked to go out to work and they believe they're at risk because they're in one of the vulnerable groups, it's important they talk to their employer.
If they cannot follow guidance on social distancing at work or during travel to work, they should tell their employer they need to follow government advice and stay at home.
Unfair treatment and dismissal
An employee is protected by law against unfair treatment and dismissal, if it's because of:
- age; or
- a health condition that's considered a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act.
It does not matter how long they've worked for the employer.
It could be unlawful discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy, disability or age if an employer either:
- unreasonably tries to pressure someone to go to work; or
- unreasonably disciplines someone for not going to work.
Self-isolation and sick pay
Employees and workers must receive any Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) due to them if they need to self-isolate because:
• they have coronavirus;
• they have coronavirus symptoms, for example a high temperature or new continuous cough;
• someone in their household has coronavirus symptoms; or
• they've been told to self-isolate by a doctor or NHS 111.
If someone has symptoms and lives alone, they must self-isolate for 10 days.
If someone lives in a household and is the first to have symptoms, they must self-isolate for 10 days. Everyone else in their household must self-isolate for 14 days.
If anyone else in the household starts displaying symptoms, the person with the new symptoms must self-isolate for 10 days. This is regardless of where they are in the 14-day isolation period.
Find more guidance for households with possible coronavirus on the Public Health Agency NI website.
Employers might offer more than SSP and provide 'contractual' sick pay.
If an employee or worker cannot work, they should tell their employer:
• as soon as possible;
• the reason;
• how long they're likely to be off.
If the employer needs proof
Employees in self-isolation need to follow their workplace's usual sickness reporting process.
Employees can 'self-certify' for the first 7 days off work. This means following their workplace process but not having to get a note from a doctor or NHS 111.
Those self-isolating due to coronavirus for more than 7 days can get an online self-isolation note from the NHS website.
It's a good idea to check your workplace's policy on absence from work. Employers might need to be flexible if asking for self-isolation notes. For example, an employee with severe symptoms might not be able to get a note straight away.
Find advice about self-isolating on NHS.UK.
The government has opened a SSP rebate scheme for employers during the coronavirus outbreak. details are available here
If the workplace needs to close temporarily
This might be a difficult time for both employers and staff. It’s a good idea to make sure staff have a way to communicate with the employer and other people they work with.
The Government will be providing financial support for:
- employees who are temporarily sent home because there’s no work (‘furloughed workers’); and
- self-employed workers.
Covid 19 FAQs:
NI business info have a FAQ "COVID-19: Managing staff health, pay, leave and absence" which is available here.
Financial support for furloughed workers
Financial support for furloughed workers will be provided to employers through the ‘Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’.
Information on how to claim can be found through nibusinessinfo here.
The furlough scheme has been extended - further information can be found Here
Furloughed employees or workers must have been on their PAYE payroll and included in a 'Real Time Information' (RTI) submission to HMRC on or before 23:59 30th October 2020. This may include:
- those who do casual work; and
- those who have zero-hours contracts.
To be eligible for the scheme, employers will need to:
- select and tell (‘designate’) the employees affected that they’re furloughed;
- keep employees on the employer’s payroll; and
- make sure furloughs last at least 3 weeks.
If someone has more than one job
Each job is treated separately. This means they may be able to either:
- continue to work for their other job; or
- be furloughed for both jobs.
If they’re furloughed for both jobs, they’ll be eligible for financial support for each job.
While you’re on furlough
Once you are on furlough you will not be able to work for your employer. You can undertake training or volunteer subject to public health guidance, as long as you’re not:
- making money for your employer or a company linked or associated to your employer
- providing services to your employer or a company linked or associated to your employer
If workers are required to, for example, complete training courses whilst they are furloughed, then they must be paid at least their appropriate minimum wage (NLW/NMW/AMW) for the time spent training, even if this is more than the 80% of their wage that will be subsidised.
Whilst furloughed your employer cannot ask you to do work for another linked or associated company.
If your contract allows, you may undertake other employment while your current employer has placed you on furlough, and this will not affect the grant that they can claim under the scheme.
Whilst on furlough, you may still undertake union or non-union representatives duties and activities for the purpose of an individual or collective representation of employees or other workers. However in doing this, you must not provide services to or generate revenue for, or on behalf of your organisation or a linked or associated organisation.
Selecting and telling affected employees
Employers must select employees for furlough in a fair way to avoid any discrimination.
They also need to get agreement from the employee to do this, unless it’s covered by a clause in the employment contract.
If your employer and a trade union reach collective agreement that is also acceptable, for the purpose of your employer claiming through the scheme.
They need to clearly explain how much the employee will get paid in total.
The government will pay employers 80% of wages. The employer should decide whether they'll top up the wages to 100%, but they do not have to. If the employer decides not to top up the wages, they should tell the employee and explain why not.
If an employee disagrees with their employer's decision, they'll need to talk to their employer and try to come to an agreement.
Changing an employment contract
If an employer cannot reach an agreement, they may want to change the written terms in an employee’s contract.
If there are more than 20 employees affected, employers will need to consult staff representatives (‘collectively consult’).
Any furlough agreements should be in writing. It's a good idea to include:
- the date furlough starts;
- how much the person will be paid;
- when it will be reviewed; and
- how to keep in contact during furlough.
Download a furlough letter template.
The Furlough Scheme is changing from 1st July 2021 details of this can be found here
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been extended until 30 September 2021. From 1 July 2021, the government will pay 70% of wages up to a maximum cap of £2,187.50 for the hours the employee is on furlough.
Employers will top up employees’ wages to make sure they receive 80% of wages (up to £2,500) in total for the hours the employee is on furlough. The caps are proportional to the hours not worked.
A calculator is now available for employers to work out employees "80%" furlough pay here
If you are on maternity leave, adoption leave, paternity leave, shared parental leave or parental bereavement leave
The normal rules for maternity and other forms of parental leave and pay apply.
Although, your employer may need to calculate your average weekly earnings, if you were put on furlough and then started leave on or after 25 April 2020 for:
- maternity pay
- adoption pay
- paternity pay
- shared parental pay (the same rules as maternity and paternity pay apply)
- parental bereavement pay
Your employer can claim through the scheme for enhanced (earnings related) contractual pay for employees who qualify for either:
- maternity pay
- adoption pay
- paternity pay
- shared parental pay
- parental bereavement pay
If employers need short-term cash flow support, they may be eligible for a 'Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan'.
As this is a new scheme and the details are still being finalised, the Agency’s Workplace Information Service helpline will not be able to give further information.
Find out more about:
- claiming for wage costs through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme on nidirect.gov.uk
- support for businesses through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme on nibusinessinfo
- See our Practical Guide to the CJRS including a sample furlough letter.
Financial support for self-employed workers
Financial support will be provided to self-employed workers through the ‘Self-Employed Income Support Scheme’.
Information on the scheme can be found here
Lay-offs and short-time working
In some situations, an employer might need to close down their business for a short time, or ask staff to reduce their contracted hours.
If the employer thinks they'll need to do this, it's important to talk with staff as early as possible and throughout the closure.
Unless it says in the contract or is agreed otherwise, they still need to pay their employees for this time.
Employees who are laid off and are not entitled to their usual pay might be entitled to a 'statutory guarantee payment' of up to £30 a day from their employer.
This is limited to a maximum of 5 days in any period of 3 months. On days when a guarantee payment is not payable, employees might be able to claim Jobseekers Allowance.
Find out more about:
• your nearest Jobcentre on NI Direct
Using holiday for a temporary workplace closure
Employers have the right to tell employees and workers when to take holiday if they need to.
An employer could for example, shut for a week and tell everyone to use their holiday entitlement.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) is designed to support employers whose operations have been severely affected by Coronavirus (Covid-19) in allowing them to retain employees on a furloughed basis for a defined period of time.
It is unfortunate however that even with support measures such as the CJRS in place the Coronavirus situation may result in some businesses having to cease trading or reduce the size of their workforce through redundancy.
In these circumstances the normal legal provisions regarding redundancy continue to apply and it is essential that employers carefully plan and prepare for handling redundancies, given the sensitivity of the issue and personal impact on employees and their families.
In progressing any redundancy exercise employers will have to follow a fair procedure including application of their own procedure, where one exists.
Furthermore there is a requirement on employers to take steps to avoid compulsory redundancies.
It is considered good practice for employers to consult individually or with recognised trade union(s)/employee representatives, if applicable, in circumstances where less than 20 employees may be affected.
In all other instances, employers must consult the appropriate representatives by the proposed redundancies, or by any measures taken in connection with those redundancies.
The consultation should include ways of:
- avoiding the redundancies;
- reducing the number of employees to be made redundant; and
- reducing the effects of the redundancies.
The employer must carry out meaningful, genuine consultation with a view to reaching agreement with appropriate representatives on these issues. This duty applies even when the employees to be made redundant are volunteers.
Consultation should begin in good time and be completed before any redundancy notices are issued.
Redundancy Consultation Period
It is vitally important that employers note the requirements regarding redundancy consultation periods. Consultation must begin:
- at least 30 days before the first person is made redundant, if 20 to 99 employees are to be made redundant at one organisation over a period of 90 days or less; or
- at least 90 days before the first person is made redundant, if 100 or more employees are to be made redundant at one organisation over a period of 90 days or less.
Employers must observe relevant requirements regarding the payment of statutory redundancy payments, notice period payments and any other contractual obligations.
As an employee it is still possible that you may be made redundant while you are furloughed. The calculation for statutory redundancy pay to which you may be entitled is based on age, length of service and normal weekly pay up to a certain limit (currently £560 as at 6 April 2020).
This Statutory Rule ensures that various statutory entitlements based on a week's pay and connected with termination of employment are not reduced as a result of an employee being furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS).
Further resources and information on Redundancy can be found at
In most situations, employees and workers should use their paid holiday (‘statutory annual leave’) in their current leave year. This is 5.6 weeks in the UK.
This is important because taking holiday helps people:
- get enough rest; and
- keep healthy (physically and mentally).
If an employee or worker is temporarily sent home because there’s no work and the employer intends to claim for their wages under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ('furloughed'), they can still request and take their holiday in the usual way. This includes taking bank holidays.
Employees and workers must get their usual pay in full, for any holidays they take.
Carrying over holiday
During the coronavirus outbreak, it may not be possible for staff to take all their holiday entitlement during the current holiday year.
Employers should still be encouraging workers and employees to take their paid holiday. Employees and workers should also make requests for paid holiday throughout their holiday year, if possible.
Some employers will already have an agreement to carry over paid holiday.
The executive has introduced a temporary new law allowing employees and workers to carry over up to 4 weeks’ paid holiday into their next 2 holiday leave years. This law applies for any holiday the employee or worker does not take because of coronavirus.
They may also be able to carry over holiday if they’ve been 'furloughed' and cannot reasonably use it in their holiday year.
Bank holidays are usually part of the legal minimum 5.6 weeks’ paid holiday. Employees and workers must get their usual pay in full for bank holidays.
Employees and workers may still be required to use a day’s paid holiday for bank holidays, including when they’re furloughed. If bank holidays are given on top of the 5.6 week’s paid holiday, employees and workers should check their contract or talk to their employer about taking this holiday.
If employees and workers usually work on bank holidays but are currently furloughed, they should check with their employer to see if they have to take holiday on that day or if they can take the time off at a later date.
If employees and workers cannot take bank holidays off due to coronavirus, they should use the holiday at a later date in their leave year.
Agreeing how extra holiday is carried over
If employers do not already have an agreement in place, they can decide whether they’ll allow extra holiday (more than the 4 weeks’ paid holiday) to be carried over.
Extra holiday may include:
- the remaining 1.6 weeks of statutory annual leave;
- holiday that’s more than the legal minimum.
Employees and workers should check their employment contract or talk to their employer to find out what they’re entitled to.
Reaching an agreement
If the workplace has a recognised trade union, or there are employee representatives who work with the employer on these matters, the employer should involve them in agreeing changes.
If any agreement is made, it’s a good idea for it to be in writing.
Employers should get legal advice if they’re not sure whether to allow extra holiday to be carried over.
Previously booked holidays
An employee may no longer want to take time off they'd previously booked, for example because their hotel cancelled the booking. Their employer can insist they still take the time off, but it’s best practice to get agreement from the employee.
If the employee wants to change when they take this time off, they'll need to get agreement from their employer.
Requiring staff to take or cancel holiday
Employers have the right to tell employees and workers when to take holiday.
They cannot do this, however, for any employees or workers who are on:
- sick leave, including sick leave because they are shielding
- family leave, for example maternity leave
An employer could, for example, shut for a week and tell everyone to use their holiday entitlement.
If the employer decides to do this, they must tell staff at least twice as many days before as the number of days they need people to take. For example, if they want to close for 5 days, they should tell everyone at least 10 days before.
Employers can also cancel pre-booked paid holiday. If they decide to do this, they must give staff at least the same number of days’ notice as the original holiday request.
For example, if an employee has booked 5 days holiday, the employer must tell them at least 5 days before the holiday starts that it’s cancelled.
This could affect holiday staff have already booked or planned. So employers should:
• explain clearly why they need to do this; and
• try and resolve anyone’s worries about how it will affect their holiday entitlement or plans.
Being flexible about holiday during coronavirus
Employers and employees should be as flexible as they can about holiday during the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s a good idea to:
- talk about any plans to use or cancel holiday during coronavirus as soon as possible
- discuss why holiday might need to be taken or cancelled
- listen to any concerns, either from staff or the employer
- invite and suggest ideas for alternatives
- consider everyone’s physical and mental wellbeing
- be aware that it’s a difficult time for both employers and staff
If an employee needs time off work to look after someone
Employees are entitled to time off work to help someone who depends on them (a 'dependant') in an unexpected event or emergency. This could apply to situations to do with coronavirus.
A dependant does not necessarily live with the person, for example they could be an elderly neighbour or relative who relies on the person for help.
There's no statutory right to pay for this time off, but some employers might offer pay depending on the contract or workplace policy.
The amount of time off an employee takes to look after someone must be reasonable for the situation. For example, they might take 2 days off to start with and if more time is needed they can book holiday.
If a dependant such as a partner, child or relative in the same household gets coronavirus symptoms, they should receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) as a minimum for this time. They’ll also need to follow self-isolation guidance on the Public Health Agency website.
This may be an anxious time for parents, and employers will need to be planning cover at work.
If employees need emergency time off for child care or to make new arrangements, they can use:
• time off to care for someone else ('time off for dependants');
• holiday, if their employer agrees.
Employers and employees can consider these steps:
• talking to each other early on about time off that might be needed;
• agreeing regular conversations so both can plan ahead;
• agreeing flexible working instead of taking longer periods of time off, for example working from home or changing working hours to allow for child care.
If any agreement is made, it’s a good idea for it to be in writing.
If someone has coronavirus symptoms at work
If someone becomes unwell in the workplace with coronavirus symptoms, they should:
• tell their employer immediately and go home;
• avoid touching anything;
• cough or sneeze into a tissue and put it in a bin, or if they do not have tissues, cough and sneeze into the crook of their elbow; and
• use a separate bathroom from others, if possible.
If the unwell person lives alone, they must self-isolate for 7 days. If they live with others and is the first to have symptoms, they must self-isolate for 7 days. Everyone else in their household must self-isolate for 14 days.
If anyone else in the household starts displaying symptoms, the person with the new symptoms must self-isolate for 7 days. This is regardless of where they are in the 14-day isolation period.
You can get more advice or help by:
• using the NHS 111 coronavirus service website;
• calling 111, if you cannot access the NHS website; or
• calling 999, if someone is seriously ill or life is at risk.
It’s best for the unwell person to use their own mobile phone or computer to access these services.
If someone with coronavirus comes to work
If someone with coronavirus comes to work, the workplace does not necessarily have to close, but they should follow cleaning advice.
See advice for cleaning workplaces on GOV.UK.
Good practice steps for employers
Employers should consider some simple steps to make sure they continue to provide their staff and customers with a ‘duty of care’. This means they must do all they reasonably can to support their health, safety and wellbeing.
It's good practice for employers to:
- keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace
- make sure everyone is social distancing if they come into the workplace;
- ensure employees who are in a vulnerable group are strongly advised to follow social distancing guidance
- ensure employees who are in an extremely vulnerable group and should be shielded are supported to stay at home
- make sure everyone’s contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date
- make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) and are clear on any relevant processes, for example sickness reporting and sick pay, and procedures in case someone in the workplace is potentially infected and needs to take the appropriate action
- make sure there are places to wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, and encourage everyone to do so regularly
- provide hand sanitiser and tissues for staff, and encourage them to use them
- keep up to date with the latest government coronavirus advice on NI Direct.
See NI Direct and GOV.UK for sector-specific guidance on social distancing in the workplace
Employers must not single anyone out unfairly. For example, they must not treat an employee differently because of their race or ethnicity.
They should look out for any bullying, discrimination or harassment happening in their workplace and address it immediately.
Disciplinary and grievance procedures during the coronavirus pandemic
The existing employment law framework in Northern Ireland and the Labour Relations Agency’s Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance continue to apply during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
This includes while social distancing and lockdown measures are in place and as such adjustments may need to be made to make allowances for difficulties in holding meetings etc in the Covid 19 context. The majority of the issues associated with the effective application of discipline and grievances matters are reasonably foreseeable and cover things such as – extending timescales, providing for unavailability of accompanying companions and so on.
The employer needs to decide if it would still be fair and reasonable to carry on with or start a disciplinary or grievance procedure while:
- people are on furlough
- following social distancing and other public health guidelines, if they’re in the workplace
- people are working from home, and it would have to be carried out remotely
If an employee wants to raise a grievance
An employee can still raise a grievance if they’re working from home or are on furlough. The employer must consider if they can carry out a fair grievance procedure.
If someone’s on furlough
Someone on furlough can take part in a disciplinary or grievance investigation or hearing, including if they:
- are under investigation in a disciplinary procedure
- raised a grievance
- are chairing a disciplinary or grievance hearing
- are taking notes at a hearing or during an investigation interview
- are being interviewed as part of an investigation
- are a witness at a hearing
- are an employee’s companion for a hearing
This is as long as:
- they're doing it out of their own choice ('voluntarily')
- it takes place in line with current public health guidance
Deciding if a disciplinary or grievance procedure can still go ahead
Any disciplinary or grievance procedure at this time must be carried out in a way that follows public health guidelines around social distancing and closure of certain business premises.
Going through a disciplinary or grievance procedure can be stressful in normal times, and employees might be facing other stressful circumstances at this time. Employers should give careful consideration to the health and wellbeing of employees when deciding whether and how to proceed at this time.
It can be helpful for the employer to talk through the options with everyone involved before making a decision whether or not to proceed.
Whether the employer decides to go ahead with the procedure or postpone it, they should explain their decision with those involved. This will help everyone to be clear about what has been agreed and why.
If the workplace is still open
If all those involved in the procedure are still going to the workplace (‘key workers’), the employer should consider whether the procedure can be carried out in line with public health guidelines.
For example, if interviews and meetings can be held in a place that safely allows for social distancing as well as privacy.
If people are working from home
If some or all of those involved in the procedure are working at home or on furlough, the employer will need to decide if the procedure can still be carried out in a fair and reasonable way. They should consider:
- the individual circumstances and sensitivity of the case, for example if it needs to be dealt with urgently, or if it would be dealt with more fairly when people are able to return to the workplace
- if anyone involved has a reasonable objection to the procedure going ahead at this time
Going ahead with a procedure at this time might mean having to use video meetings for any investigation interviews and hearings. The employer should consider if this can be done in a fair way, including if:
- everyone involved has access to the technology needed for video meetings, for example the necessary equipment and internet connection
- anyone involved has any disability or other accessibility issues that might affect their ability to use video technology, and whether any reasonable adjustments might be needed
- any witness statements or other evidence can be seen clearly by everyone involved during the hearing
- it will be possible to fairly assess and question evidence given by people interviewed in a video meeting
- it’s possible to get hold of all the evidence needed for the investigation or hearing, for example records or files that are kept in the office
- it’s possible for the person under a disciplinary investigation or who raised a grievance to be accompanied during the hearing
If an employer goes ahead with a disciplinary or grievance procedure
If the employer decides to continue or start a disciplinary or grievance procedure, they must follow the Labour Relations Agency’s (LRA) Code of Practice which is available here.
If a disciplinary or grievance case reaches an employment tribunal, judges will look at whether the employer has followed the LRA Code of Practice in a fair and reasonable way.
The right to be accompanied
The right for an employee to be accompanied at a disciplinary or grievance hearing still applies. The employee's chosen companion must be able to attend the hearing, even if it's being carried out through a video meeting.
The hearing must be set up to allow the employee’s chosen companion to:
- put and sum up the employee’s case
- respond on behalf of the employee to anything said
- talk privately with the employee at any point
If the companion is unable to attend at the time or date of the hearing, the employee has the right to suggest another time and date.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the availability of an employee’s chosen companion might be more limited than usual. For example, they might have more caring responsibilities.
In cases that might result in dismissal in particular, the employer must always act fairly to avoid unfair dismissal.
Recording video meetings
For most disciplinary or grievance meetings held by video, there will be no reason to record the meeting.
If it’s felt there’s a good reason to record it, this must be done in line with data protection law.
The employee’s right of appeal
The employee’s right of appeal still applies.
The employer must follow a fair appeals procedure taking in the same considerations as for carrying out a disciplinary or grievance procedure during the coronavirus pandemic.
Making a claim to an industrial tribunal
If an employee or worker wants to make a claim to an employment tribunal, the legal time limit is still the same during the coronavirus pandemic, even if a disciplinary or grievance procedure has been postponed.
The claim must usually be made within 3 months. If it's a claim about redundancy pay or equal pay, the claim must be made within 6 months.
They still need to tell the Labour Relations Agency first that they're intending to make a claim.
Find out more about making a claim to an employment tribunal.
Non-essential shops and public spaces closures
The Government has introduced measures that require all non-essential shops and community spaces to close to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).
The Executive has published a list of essential businesses - HERE
Further information on the businesses that can open and those that should close can be found here.
Emergency Volunteering Leave
A new, temporary, statutory right is available for eligible workers to take Emergency Volunteering Leave to help the Health and Social Care system in response to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Suitably skilled and/or experienced workers will be able to take Emergency Volunteering Leave in blocks of two, three or four weeks during any sixteen-week volunteering period.
The emergency volunteering leave is unpaid; however, a compensation scheme will be set up to compensate eligible emergency volunteers for some loss of income and expenses incurred.
You must have been certified by an appropriate authority to act as an emergency volunteer in health or social care. In Northern Ireland, the appropriate authorities are:
- the Department of Health;
- a Regional Health and Social Care Board; and
- a Health and Social Care trust.
To avail of the emergency volunteering leave, you must give your employer at least three working days’ notice and the certificate provided by the appropriate authority.
Except for those organisations and workers that are exempt, there is no provision for employers to refuse leave, for example because of operational need.
Employment rights and benefits
During emergency volunteering leave, you’ll still be entitled to the benefit of all of your terms and conditions of employment which would have applied if you had not been absent - except for terms and conditions relating to remuneration. The period of absence will be deemed not to have any effect on your pension or benefit entitlements.
As an emergency volunteer, you have a statutory right to return to the job you were employed in before taking emergency volunteering leave and on terms and conditions that are no less favourable than those which would have applied if you hadn't been absent.
In addition, volunteers will have the right not to be subjected to a detriment or dismissal on the grounds of taking emergency volunteering leave.
Exemptions to the statutory right to Emergency Volunteering Leave
The following organisations and workers are exempt from the statutory right to emergency volunteering leave:
- micro businesses (those with 10 or fewer employees);
- Crown employees;
- military personnel;
- the Police; and
- NI Assembly and commission staff.
Northern Ireland Vaccination Programmme
In Northern Ireland, the Public Health Agency (PHA) and the Health and Social Care Northern Ireland (HSCNI) are managing the roll-out of vaccinations for covid-19. A guide for adults can be found here. The booking system and the HSCNI website can be found here
Vaccinations and the Workplace
We have a new 'Practical Guide to the COVID-19 Vaccination and the Workplace' which is free to download. The guide includes a template policy which employers can adapt for their organisation's needs.
Employers should support their staff in being able to access the vaccine service.
Employers may find it useful to provide as much information as possible on the vaccine to the staff, and the benefits it can bring by using the resources here.
There are certain issues employers may need to address in relation to the Covid-19 vaccinations and the impact it may have on the workplace. The Labour Relations Agency advises that employers seek to put in place a vaccination policy (or an addendum to an existing policy) to explain how issues relating to the vaccinations will be handled in the workplace.
A policy should seek to clarify how the employer will view the following:
- Is it compulsory for my/our employees to have a COVID-19 vaccination?
- Will staff get time off to attend my vaccination appointment?
- Are my/our staff prioritised for the vaccine because of their role?
- My staff member has experienced side effects to the vaccination and is unfit for work; how should this be recorded?
- If a staff member is in the defined clinically extremely vulnerable group; if they are unable to work from home, do they have to return to the workplace once they receive the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination?
- Once staff have been vaccinated, do they need to continue with social distancing in the workplace?
- Does the same guidance relating to vaccinations apply to Agency staff?
Once someone has received the vaccine, it should reduce the risk of them suffering from the Covid-19 disease. However, it is important that workplaces continue to operate in a Covid safe and secure manner including the regular cleaning and sanitising of work areas, hand hygiene, the wearing of face coverings, practicing social distancing, where appropriate and following current government guidance.
Employers have a duty of care to ensure the health and safety of their employees in the workplace, further information on this can be found on the Health and Safety Executive NI website here.
The Health and Safety at Work legislation can be found here.
Communicating about the Vaccine
Employers should seek to inform staff about the vaccine and how the employer will manage potential issues around its delivery. This could take many forms depending on the nature of the business, however staff briefings, meetings, all staff emails or notice boards are some of the ways this information can be relayed.
If the employer has a recognised trade union, they should liaise with the trade union officials to provide information in partnership with the trade union about the potential issues around the vaccine programme.
Those unwilling or unable to have the Vaccine
Whilst the Public Health Agency strongly encourages everyone to take the vaccine, there are those within the population who may be unwilling or unable to get vaccinated at this time. This could be for reasons relating to:
- A medical issue
- Ethic minority
- Religious belief
- Non-engagement with the health services
- Personal choice
It is important that employers understand that vaccination is not compulsory by law and individuals retain the option of refusing the vaccine.
When drafting a policy to cover this area, employers should allow some flexibility to allow those who do not get the vaccine to be treated fairly and avoid any potential discrimination under the Northern Ireland equality legislation.
Further information on discrimination can be found on the Equality Commission’s website here.
Example arrangements for the Workplace
Given that the vaccination service is operating both within and outside normal working hours, it is possible the employee may receive an appointment to visit the vaccination hub within their working hours. In these circumstances, the employee may be bound to the existing arrangements that govern how to access medical appointments during working hours. If the employer wishes to allow staff to attend these clinics in a manner that steps outside any agreed policy, they should let employees know.
Employees should be encouraged to provide clear evidence of the appointment (possibly in the form of a letter/vaccination appointment card) that will inform the employer of the date, time and location of the appointment. This should be provided to the employer as soon as possible to enable the employer to put plans in place to cover the employee’s absence.
Variation of Contracts
An Employer may consider it appropriate to include some form of additional wording within existing contracts of employment, specific to the Covid-19 vaccine or perhaps there may be a need to make changes due to the economic circumstances of the business or unforeseen events as a result of the pandemic. Changes to a contract of employment are often referred to as a 'variation of contract'.
Where such circumstances exist, an employer should notify an employee(s) of the intended change and seek agreement. Where there is a recognised trade union, the employer should engage with the trade union to seek agreement on the proposed change.
An employer imposing or enforcing any change to a contract of employment without an employee’s consent, or without dismissing and re-engaging them, is likely to result in a breach of contract, often referred to as 'a unilateral variation of contract'. In this situation an employee has a number of options open to them. For more information view our webinar on variation of contract here and/or refer to our written guidance document here.