Coronavirus COVID-19: FAQ’s – Short-time working, informing others and protecting the vulnerable

Lizzie Buxton

Written By Sarah Robinson, Technical HR Consultant

23rd March 2020

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I’ve heard about short-time working and lay-offs? What are they and should I implement them?

Lay-offs are asking an employee not to attend work or be paid for temporary period and short-time working is asking an employee to work less than their regular contractual hours, for example reduced hours or days.

You can only implement lay-offs or short-time working if there are express clauses in your contracts.

Alternatively, you could seek to gain consent from your employees to lay-offs or short-time working. To obtain consent, it is important you follow a proper consultation process, explain the proposed changes, understand individual circumstances and seek agreement. Be mindful of the rules around collective redundancy if you may need to make more than 20 redundancies.

If you implement lay-offs or short-time working without a clause or consent, you will be at risk of breach of contract, unlawful deduction of wages and unfair dismissal.

You could also consider alternatives such as asking employees to use annual leave, take unpaid leave or provide suggestions.

How do I manage employees in the vulnerable group? 

People in the vulnerable group are currently defined as those aged 70 or over, pregnant or have a specified underlying health condition. Advice may change but at this stage the government have strongly advised these people work from home but have not said they have to self-isolate.

If you have anyone in this group you should allow them to work from home if possible, but you cannot say they have to work from home. Forcing them to work from home could be discriminatory.

Speak to individuals in those groups, understand any specific medical advice and try as well as you can to accommodate them. If they cannot work from home and you have no other option consider agreeing to use unpaid leave or holidays.

Employees in the vulnerable group are not entitled to SSP unless they are following government guidance to self-isolate for other reasons.

If an employee is pregnant I recommend you carry out a risk assessment with them. If you find any particular risks to your pregnant employee or their child you should adapt the workplace to remove those risks. If you cannot do that then you may need to consider suspension on full pay as a precaution.

Do colleagues have a right to be informed if another colleague has coronavirus?

This needs to be carefully balanced in terms of the employee’s data protection rights and right to privacy and your duty to care for other employee’s health and safety.

Seek consent from the employee to tell others and carefully consider who you need to tell and what to tell them. For example, you may want to ask the employee what other colleagues they have been in contact with and limit telling them if there is no risk to other colleagues.

If the employee refuses to consent you may still be justified in telling employees who need to know on health and safety grounds. Again, carefully consider who you do need to tell and if possible do not reveal the name of the infected employee.

You may wish to instruct employees not to talk to the media about any cases.

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