COVID-19 Considerations – Returning to work

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As lockdown provisions begin to lift, and employers look at how to reopen their businesses, there will be a vast amount of considerations to present themselves as we return to the “new normal” of business life. In this article, Croner, the MIA’s trusted HR and employment law partner, explain what these may look like and the key changes you can make to benefit your business.

Changing Terms and Conditions

In order to keep costs down, employers may consider making changes to staff contracts, such as reducing their hours or salaries. Contractual schemes such as enhanced sick or maternity pay could also be reviewed, as could introducing the option for job-sharing. These could either be temporary changes until the situation improves, or permanent. In the absence of a specific term already in a contract permitting the change, employers will need to seek their employee’s express agreement to it before going ahead.

Reorganising Job Roles

To meet business demand, employers could require staff to undertake different roles on a temporary or permanent basis if their contract of employment allows for this. If not, employers should again seek agreement with staff to change their roles, and further training should be provided if necessary. If staff can take on additional work, it may be that only some of them need to be made redundant.

Withdrawing Job Offers

Employers could consider postponing the start date for new members of staff, or withdrawing their offer entirely. However, if the individual has accepted their offer and been given a start date, withdrawing it now is likely to be in breach of contract. To avoid a potential claim, employers may consider giving the new employee notice of termination and pay them for their notice period.

Implementing Short-time Working

Instead of seeking to vary contractual hours, employers could pursue short-time working, where hours are reduced on a temporary basis. Again, in the absence of a contractual term, staff will need to agree to this beforehand.

Staff placed on short-time working for a period of four consecutive weeks, or six weeks in total in a thirteen week period, can claim statutory redundancy pay if they have worked for the company for at least two years. However, a ‘week’ of short-time working will only count if they received less than half a week’s normal pay

Laying-off Staff

Instead of using the Job Retention Scheme to furlough staff, an alternative option is to lay them off. Also known as ‘temporary redundancy’, this is where staff are not provided work by a company, and therefore not paid, when their pay is dependent on them receiving work. Unless there is a specific clause in the employment contract allowing the company to lay staff off without pay, staff will also need to agree to this. Even with this clause, laid off staff who have been employed for at least a month may be entitled to statutory guarantee pay (SGP), which is currently £30 per day for a maximum of five days.

As with short-time working, laid-off staff can also claim redundancy pay after being laid off for four weeks consecutively or six weeks in a 13-week period

Social Distancing

One of the main challenges businesses will face is social distancing. While every workplace is different, and so the guidance will differ, you have a duty of care to your employees.

How to Practice Social Distancing at Work

You can perform a risk assessment to help determine potential issues ahead. But, in many instances, you should follow basic social distance guidelines for businesses. This is about ensuring all employees are able to maintain a two-metre distance from one another. Constantly.

This may involve some rearranging of workstations. If you do move employees around, be sure they’re made aware of their new location in good time. And that they have access to everything they need to perform their role.

In areas that are likely to see a lot of traffic, use floor tape or paint to mark areas to help keep people two-metre distance apart.

It’s not recommended for you to meet clients or have visitors if the meeting can be held via video call or postponed to another date.

Your workplace should only have those employees who need to be there on location. For instances where people can’t maintain social distancing, manage risk as much as possible. For example, using screens or barriers, staggering shift times.

How to Maintain Social Distancing at Work

Once you’re through the initial process of getting employees back into work and implementing precautions, you might start asking the question: “How do I keep this up?”

Maintaining social distancing measures at work after COVID-19 lockdown ends will be a challenge. For example, some employees may not want to abide by the measures you’ve put in place.

It’s important to regularly review your risk assessment. It might be that once people are back, measures need to be changed.

For those who repeatedly fail to follow the measures you’ve put into place, it may be worth going down a disciplinary route.

Key Health & Safety Checks for Social Distancing at Work

When you’re reviewing the situation, there are some key areas you need to keep in mind.

Remember, social distancing at work should always be at the forefront of your mind. Key checks include:

  • Work areas: Are people two metres apart?
  • Where employees can’t keep two-metres apart: Have all possible precautions been taken?
  • Communal areas: How are these made secure?
  • Hygiene: Have you made handwashing facilities available?
  • Information and guidance: Have you provided employees with all the information they need to stay safe?
  • PPE: Where personal protective equipment is needed, has it been supplied?

Key Considerations for a Social Distancing Policy at Work

One way to ensure you’re set for social distancing at work is to create a policy. After all, social distancing at work may continue after lockdown for some time.

Here are the main things to consider when creating this document:

  • HR and health & safety: Social distancing covers both HR and health & safety. So, it’s important to cover both of these areas in your policy. Highlight the health & safety measures your business is going to take. And, highlight the HR processes you’ll take if anyone fails to adhere to them.
  • Are all risks addressed? Each workplace is different. There will be risks your workplace will face that others won’t. Ensure you take these issues into consideration hen developing your policy.
  • Is it necessary? Consider whether you need to have a policy at all. Remember, only workers who need to be in work should be at the workplace. The policy should take these employees into consideration.

How Often a Business Should Assess their Social Distancing Policy

Review your policy every time there’s a new government update that could affect employees. Also review your policy if the situation at work changes. Finally, do so again whenever a new group of workers come back into the office for the first time.

MIA Members – free access to Croner’s helpline! 

For any advice or guidance on any of the above, or if you have wider HR queries, all MIA members have free access to Croner’s member support helpline. Email alice@mia.org.uk for the exclusive Business Support Helpline scheme number.

www.croner.co.uk