How best to be prepared for outbreaks of sickness in the workplace

Banner Jones’ Head of Employment Law, Katie Ash (pictured), considers the role, and the rights, of an employer when it comes to illness and absenteeism.

Any responsible employer would want to ensure that the wellbeing of staff is at the forefront of any decision made with regards sickness and absenteeism. However, nobody could have

predicted the outbreak of coronavirus or how rapidly it would spread, and many business owners will rightly have concerns about how to maintain productivity if any employees become affected - or indeed, infected. Firstly, it’s important to

remember that while the circumstances here are certainly unique, the overarching theme of illness at work is not, and a clear sickness policy which outlines how you will aim to manage employees’ absence due to sickness should be in place, and the details included in their employment contract. Your policy should clearly outline

what is expected from an employee if they are deemed unfit for work, including who they should contact, when they are expected to provide a sickness note from a GP and guidance on the support they will receive when returning to work. And while it is unlikely to be

necessary in cases such as coronavirus, you should also make clear what the procedure is with long-term sickness and what will happen if returning to work is not a viable option. What, though, many may be

asking, are your rights as a business owner if your staff member is not sick, but has been recommended to undergo self- isolation because of the virus. Simply put, at the time of writing

this article, there is no legal requirement for an employer to provide sickness pay in these circumstances. Nevertheless, it may be good

practice to treat the absence as sick leave or agree the time to be taken as holiday to avoid risking the employee coming into work and having the threat that they may spread the virus. If employees are worried about

catching the virus and raise concerns about coming into work, it would be best practice to listen

82 business network April 2020

to the concerns carefully and produce internal communications about how you are safeguarding the workplace and how employees should respond to symptoms.

‘If you as an employer request that a staff member should not come into work because of the risk they might spread the disease, then they will be entitled to their usual pay’

This is the same for any illness

and, as an employer, you should take care in recognising when employees may not seem like themselves. When developing a code of

conduct in response to an illness, if you as an employer request that a staff member should not come into work because of the risk they

might spread the disease, then they will be entitled to their usual pay, which would mean their full wages for several weeks, if not months. As an accountable employer the

wellbeing of all your staff should be a priority and you should follow any advice issued by the Government or the NHS in response to sickness symptoms in the workplace. If a significant proportion of your

workforce is affected by sickness during the same period, we can understand that this can have a detrimental impact on your business. In this instance you should speak to your insurance provider and see what provisions there are for covering employees’ salaries if you were to bring in temporary staff or if they would cover employee sickness pay. Other things to consider would

be to make sure you have alternative working parameters in place in case your workplace becomes an unsafe place to work. This may be incorporated by

allowing employees to work from home or moving employees into a temporary working environment. When taking this decision, it may be worth speaking with your landlord to see if they have any requirements to help make this into a secure environment. As a final point, it may surprise

many employers to learn that a staggering 2.5 million UK workers are unaware of their employer’s policy on Statutory Sick Pay. There is no legal requirement for you to spend the time to make sure your employee understands your policy, but it is considered good practice to do so, and it may help streamline the process should anyone ever need it. Usually Statutory Sick Pay is

payable from the fourth day of an employee’s absence, but the Government has announced that it will be payable from day one in an effort to ensure that the virus can be contained as much as possible and employees don’t come to work when they really shouldn’t.

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