COVID-19 - Advice for Employers and Employees

The number of cases of Coronavirus in Northern Ireland continues to rise.  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.

For general advice people should contact the Public Health Agency as their advice continues to be refined to reflect the changing situation.

Social distancing and vulnerable people

Current government advice is for everyone to try and stop unnecessary contact with other people – 'social distancing'. This includes:

•            working from home where possible

•            avoiding busy commuting times on public transport

•            avoiding gatherings of people, whether in public, at work or at home

 

Employers should support their workforce to take these steps. This might include:

•            agreeing to more flexible ways of working, for example changing start and finish times to avoid busier commuting times

•            allowing staff to work from home wherever possible

•            cancelling face-to-face events and meetings and rearranging to remote calling where possible, for example using video or conference calling technology

 

Vulnerable people

The government has issued guidance that strongly advises people who are at a higher risk of catching coronavirus (‘vulnerable people’) to take strict social distancing measures.

Employers must be especially careful and take extra steps for anyone in their workforce who is in a vulnerable group. They include, but are not limited to, 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; or

•            care for someone with a health condition that might put them at a greater risk

Find out more about social distancing and vulnerable people on https://www.publichealth.hscni.net.

 

Working from home

Where work can be done at home, the employer could:

•            ask staff who have work laptops or mobile phones to take them home so they can carry on working; or

•            arrange paperwork tasks that can be done at home for staff who do not work on computers.

If an employer and employee agree to 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.

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 7 days.

If someone lives in a household 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.

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.  Find out more about sick pay.

If an employee or worker cannot work, they should tell their employer:

•            as soon as possible;

•            the reason; and

•            how long they're likely to be off for.

The employer might need to be flexible if they require evidence from the employee or worker.  For example, someone might not be able to provide a sick note ('fit note') if they've been told to self-isolate for more than 7 days.

Find advice about self-isolating on NHS.UK.

 

Government Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme - 'Furloughed Workers'

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

Under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, all UK employers will be able to access support to continue paying part of their employees’ salary, for those employees that would otherwise have been laid off during this crisis.

 

Eligibility

  • All UK businesses are eligible.

 

How to access the scheme

You will need to:

  • Designate affected employees as ‘furloughed workers,’ and notify your employees of this change - changing the status of employees remains subject to existing employment law and, depending on the employment contract, may be subject to negotiation;

 

  • Submit information to HMRC about the employees that have been furloughed and their earnings through a new online portal (HMRC will set out further details on the information required); and

 

  • HMRC will reimburse 80% of furloughed workers wage costs, up to a cap of £2,500 per month. HMRC is working urgently to set up a system for reimbursement. Existing systems are not set up to facilitate payments to employers.

 

If your business needs short term cash flow support, you may be eligible for a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan.

If the employer needs to close the workplace

An employer may want to plan in case they need to close the workplace 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.

 

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 £29 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

Employers have the right to tell employees and workers when to take holiday if they need to.  For example, they can decide to shut for a week and everyone has to use their holiday entitlement.

If the employer does decide 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.

 

This could affect holiday staff have already booked or planned.  So employers should:

•            explain clearly why they need to close; and

•            try and resolve anyone’s worries about how it will affect their holiday entitlement or plans.

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.

 

School closures

As schools in Northern Ireland have now closed, this will have an effect on care and working arrangements.  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'); or

•            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; and

•            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 help protect the health and safety of everyone during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

It's good practice for employers to:

•            be especially careful and take extra steps for vulnerable groups, including those who are pregnant, aged 70 or over, or who have a long-term health condition;

•            hold meetings as remote calls and avoid travel as much as possible;

•            make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes, for example sickness reporting and sick pay, and procedures in case someone in the workplace shows symptoms of the virus;

•            make sure there are clean places to wash hands with hot water and soap, and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly;

•            provide hand sanitiser and tissues for staff, and encourage them to use them;

•            make sure everyone's contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date;

•            keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace; and

•            keep up to date with the latest government coronavirus advice on GOV.UK.

 

Avoiding discrimination

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.

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

 

Stormont ministers have confirmed that the following essential retail services should continue to trade:

  • Supermarkets (excluding any cafes within them), convenience stores and corner shops
  • Grocery markets – not including farmers markets, hot food markets or street food markets.
  • Local fresh food suppliers like butchers, fishmongers and bakeries.
  • Hot food takeaways - over the counter services only and not allowing an option to eat in.
  • Pharmacies/Chemists and Health food shops.
  • Dental surgeries, opticians, audiology, physiotherapy, chiropody and other professional vocational medical services – for urgent appointments only.
  • Veterinary clinics and pet shops.
  • Newsagents.
  • Hardware and building supplies stores.
  • Retail services in hospitals.
  • Petrol stations, garages, and auto repair shops for urgent work only.
  • High street banks, credit unions and cash points.
  • Post offices.
  • Funeral directors, crematoriums and related.
  • Laundrettes and dry cleaners.
  • Storage and distribution facilities, including delivery drop-off points.
  • Medical or storage services.
  • Public car parks in towns and cities near food takeaway services.
  • Public toilets.

The following non-essential retail services should close immediately:

  • Clothes shops.
  • Electronics shops.
  • Hair, beauty and nail salons.
  • All other non-essential retail shops, including off-licenses.
  • All other indoor and outdoor markets including non-food markets and car boot sales.
  • Hotels, hostels, Bed and Breakfasts, Caravan Parks, Camping sites, Boarding Houses – except where caravans and mobile homes are being used as permanent residences and where hotels are providing emergency accommodation.
  • Libraries.
  • Community centres and youth centres.
  • Places of worship – all churches should close to services except for funeral services. Weddings and baptisms should be postponed. If clergy want to live-stream for church services, they are free to do so.
  • All indoor recreation sites such as bowling alleys, arcades, soft play areas.
  • Enclosed spaces in public parks such as playgrounds, tennis courts and outdoor gyms.

Further information on closures can be found here: GOV.UK GUIDANCE FURTHER ON BUSINESSES AND PREMISES TO CLOSE

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.

Emergency volunteering

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.

 

 

More coronavirus advice

To get more coronavirus advice, you can:

•            find coronavirus advice on Public Health Agency NI

•            find coronavirus advice on NHS.UK

•            see latest coronavirus information and advice for employees on NI Direct

•            see guidance for employers and businesses on NI Business Info

Last updated: 28 March 2020