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Employment concerns during the COVID-19 crisis

Employers are currently facing uncharted waters following the significant impact on normal life in the face of COVID-19.

Posted on 20 March 2020

Here, employment solicitor Kiran Daurka answers some common questions about employee rights.

What steps might my employer take immediately in light of the COVID-19 virus?

The priority for most employers is to take short term steps to ensure that they protect their business as far as possible.

The most recent government advice this week (19 March 2020), is that where possible those who can work from home should be doing so for an indefinite period.  This will limit commuting to work and being exposed to the virus in public places.  

The government advice currently is that employees should stay at home if they or their families show any of the symptoms of COVID-19 – please refer to the NHS website for up to date medical advice on symptoms and self-isolation. Employers should treat self-isolation as sick leave and pay accordingly – employees and workers are entitled to at least statutory sick pay but may also receive an enhanced contractual payment during that period.  Some employees in self-isolation may prefer not to be treated as being sick if they are asymptomatic but should remain at home nonetheless and working from home if possible.  

Most employers will be looking at how to cut immediate cost – short term measures will likely include recruitment and pay freezes, reduced working and temporary lays offs. 

Can my employer force me to take unpaid leave?

Some employers may decide to seek voluntary unpaid leave from their workforce or compressed hours for a temporary period to cut the wage bill in the short term.  

Where employees do not consent to unpaid leave/shorter working hours, there may be a claim for unlawful deduction of wages which will need to be commenced within three months of reduced pay (and then reissued every three months thereafter if necessary).  

Employers may ask employees to take annual leave, but are required to give adequate notice if they require employees to go on annual leave.  Adequate notice means giving twice as much notice as leave to be taken – for example, if they want you to take 1 week’s leave, then they need to give two weeks’ notice. 

What about casual workers?

Casual workers are more at risk of being temporarily laid off. However, many casual workers may be classed as ‘workers’ under the legal definition of that term and are thus entitled to statutory sick pay and holiday pay.  Further, some casual workers may be entitled to a guaranteed statutory payment of up to £145.  The government has yet to announce any specific financial measures to support casual workers who are often renters rather than homeowners.  The TUC has asked the government to address urgently the financial concerns of casual workers.  Try and keep in touch with your employer to see what they are a planning and what work is available.  

Can my employer make redundancies?

In due course, there may be increasing reports of employers making redundancies.  Usually, where there are more than 20 people affected by redundancy, the employer is required to consult with the group for a period of up to 45 days.  We would hope employers will still consult in good time and consider alternatives to redundancy, particularly given the government’s promise to provide businesses financial support to assist with salaries and suppliers. 

If you are offered a settlement agreement and compensation for termination of your employment, you are required by law to take legal advice.  Your employer may make a small contribution towards legal fees for you to take that advice.

What is going to happen?

We are all aware that this is an unusual time and we are all anxious because there is a lot of uncertainty.
It is in your employer’s interest to take temporary steps to protect the business to ensure that they can get back to normal after this pandemic stabilises.  

Employees in the UK are not alone in their concerns, they are shared widely.  We continue to look to government to unveil further measures to support the British economy which means looking after the workers of Britain. 

This week, the Chancellor has announced some financial support for business and potential mortgage freezes for those individuals affected by COVID-19.  There will be further updates about additional measures that the government will introduce over the coming weeks, including for those who pay rent rather than a mortgage. 

Each day will bring new news and new measures to support us all during and immediately following the crisis. And as of this week, millions of us will welcome our new co-workers (i.e. our children) into our home offices as the schools close indefinitely.  This will bring its own challenges for parents who will increasingly look to employers to provide flexible hours and working patterns.  

Immediately, stay in contact with colleagues on a daily basis.  Where you are not in a unionised workforce, consider setting up an employee representative group to liaise with management over plans and measures being considered.  Finally, take each day as it comes.