As the COVID-19 crisis sends the UK into lockdown, the world of work as we know it has changed.
This week, our colleagues at Latitude Law have been working tirelessly to answer your frequently asked questions on about Coronavirus and Immigration.
At UTT, we've also been working hard to answer your questions on how the crisis will affect SMEs, International Businesses and entrepreneurs.
I'm an SME with a very small number of staff. Can we still go into the office?
It is important to put the wider community first. Under these circumstances, employers and employees should take reasonable steps to prevent the risk and spread of the virus and follow the latest government advice, no matter how small their company is.
On March 23rd, the government introduced strict measures requiring that people should only leave home under a list of very limited purposes.
This means people should only travel to and from work where their role cannot be done at home and that many businesses such as bars, pubs, cafes and non-essential retailers will now close.
Will working from home reduce productivity?
If you are sufficiently prepared, there is no reason why remote working should affect your employee's output. Here are a few tips to help you maintain your day-to-day operations:
1. Have daily meetings, and try to maintain face-to-face contact by utilising video conferences. You should do this not just for work, but to maintain that vital social element of your workplace. Take a few minutes at the start and end of each meeting to have a friendly chat, as you normally would do in the office.
2. Make use of online productivity software. Do your research and find the best programs to maintain communication, distribute tasks and keep track of each individual's workload.
3. Set fixed break and lunch times to ensure that employees do not 'burn out'. With nowhere to go, and little to do but work, it is likely that a number of your employees may decide to work long hours or skip breaks altogether. This shouldn't be the case, as it could affect their wellbeing in the long run - encourage everyone to get fresh air once a day, and step away from their desk for a few minutes every couple of hours.
4. Try to ensure that each of your employees have a reasonable work space - particularly if they have limited room at home. If this is the first time your team has worked remotely, it may be an idea for you to begin by advising them on how to set up an office, with ideas on how to create a good makeshift work space. Remember - working from bed is very rarely a good option!
5. Offer support and be kind. Some of your employees may be feeling particularly vulnerable, so it is important to be as open as possible, set clear expectations on a daily basis and regularly check in with your team.
What is the coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and who is eligible?
All UK-wide employers with a PAYE scheme will be eligible for the scheme– this includes the public sector, Local Authorities and charities.
Under the coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, all UK employers with a PAYE scheme will be able to access support to continue paying part of their employees’ salary for those that would otherwise have been dismissed during this crisis. This applies to employees who have been asked to stop working, but who are being kept on the pay roll, otherwise described as ‘furloughed workers’.
HMRC will reimburse 80% of their wages, up to £2,500 per month. This is to safeguard workers from being made redundant. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme will cover the cost of wages backdated to March 1st and is initially open for 3 months, but will be extended if necessary.
How do I access the Job Retention Scheme?
If you qualify, you will need to:
1. 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.
2. Once the new online portal is live, submit information to HMRC about the employees that have been furloughed and their earnings. HMRC are currently working with great urgency to establish the portal, although it is yet to become live.
What happens if one of my employees contracts coronavirus?
If an employee contracts coronavirus, this should be treated in the same way as any other sickness in terms of payment. If you normally only pay statutory sick pay (SSP) during sickness absence, then this is what the employee should receive, subject to meeting the qualifying criteria - you can find out more about SSP here.
You may wish to apply some flexibility if the employee has contracted the virus because they were on a business trip and consider increasing payment from SSP. The government has now announced that businesses with 250 employees or less will be able to apply to reclaim SSP paid for sickness due to COVID-19.
If an employee is self-isolating, is there a legal requirement for me to communicate this to the rest of the staff?
If an employee is asked to self-isolate or is suspected of having contracted the coronavirus, the employer should probably communicate this internally to the other employees.
There is no absolute legal obligation to do this, but it is important to remember that as an employer, you have a duty of mutual trust and confidence, as well as a a duty to take care of all employees’ health and safety.
In terms of privacy, revealing the name of the infected employee should not be done without the employee’s permission. Revealing details of an infected employee, including their medical situation, without permission could amount to a breach of their data protection rights or right to privacy.
However, employees are more likely to trust the employer’s virus management plans if there is openness about infected persons. Thus, employers, employees and the community as a whole should try to communicate efficiently in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
Do employees with confirmed/suspected coronavirus require evidence of their illness?
According to the law, medical evidence is not required for the first seven days of sickness: as such, employees can self-certify those first seven days.
After this period, it is up to employer to decide what evidence (if any) they require from the employee - this does not need to be fit note (Med 3 form) issued by a GP or other doctor.
As significant demand means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to access medical services, employees can now apply for an isolation note through a new online service, without having to contact their doctor. More information is available on the Government website.
How can I look after those who are not eligible for SSP?
Self-employed people, or whose work on a very casual basis, have limited protections as they are not eligible for sick pay.
There are currently proposed amendments to provide freelancers and self-employed people with guaranteed earnings during the pandemic. Assuming the Coronavirus Bill 2019-21 is passed then self-employed workers will receive 80% of their monthly net earnings, averaged over the last three years or £2,917 per month - whichever is lower. However, these amendments are just proposals at this point and are yet to be confirmed.
In the absence of any state assistance - such as the above proposals or state-funded Employment Support Allowance - the legal rights of self-employed workers depend upon the terms of the agreement and how the arrangement operates in practice.
Some organisations who can afford it may decide to offer full or partial sick pay, or goodwill cancellation payments, even though they are not legally obliged to do so. This would help and support the self-employed persons and to ensure goodwill in the future.
It is also important to remember that breach of contract claims can arise if an organisation has agreed work with self-employed persons and then reneges on this.