Coronavirus… an essential guide for all Mersey businesses

Britain is bracing itself for the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) with the number testing positive having now passed 300.

Liverpool law firm Hill Dickinson says the spread of the virus will pose significant challenges for businesses across the Liverpool city region. It adds the time to plan for business continuity is right now.

Luke Green, partner and head of schools at Hill Dickinson, and Mark Cranshaw, an associate, both of the firm’s employment, education and pensions team, have produced an invaluable guide for businesses of all sizes:

The prime minister last week predicted that up to a fifth of workers could be off sick at any one time if coronavirus cannot be contained. Many more may either be in self-isolation, caring for ill dependants or affected by travel restrictions and school closures.

This may lead to severe and sustained staff shortages, which may have major implications for businesses in terms of their productivity and profitability. It is essential that businesses use the coming weeks to make sure they have robust business continuity plans. What steps can employers take to prepare, and minimise the impact coronavirus will have on their business?

Measures to protect the health and safety of workers

The starting point for any employer should be to minimise, so far as possible, the risk of workers bringing coronavirus infection with them to work.

If workers attend work whilst symptomatic, or when they ought to be self-isolating, then the chances of them infecting colleagues (and depending on the nature of the business customers/service users) is significant.

An employer could quickly find coronavirus spreading uncontrolled among its workforce. Tackling this will involve a cultural shift within some businesses. Presenteeism is commonplace, and workers often feel that their team will not cope if they are absent and may try to work when they ought be recuperating or self-isolating.

Strong leadership from the top is required. The employer should explain to staff that the business wants them to follow the self-isolation guidance and remain at home if they, or a close dependant, is symptomatic. Careful thought should be given to taking steps to remove barriers to people taking time off work, for example:

Can company sick pay be offered to encourage people to claim sick pay instead of trying to work?

Can workers be allowed to choose to use their accrued holiday instead of claiming sick pay?

Should coronavirus-related absences be excluded when granting attendance incentive awards (because otherwise the employee will be financially ‘motivated’ to attend work ill)?

Measures designed to protect vulnerable workers

Some workers will be naturally more vulnerable to coronavirus and are statistically more likely to suffer severely and/or die.

For example, the elderly, pregnant workers, those with underlying health conditions (such as diabetes, asthma, COPD, or heart disease), and those who are otherwise immunosuppressed.

Such workers may be understandably fearful of contracting coronavirus and keen to minimise the risk.  For disabled workers, the employer will have a positive duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove any substantial disadvantage they face accessing work due to their disability.

Employers should begin to consider the extent to which it may be practical to make temporary variations to the working conditions of vulnerable workers to reduce their risk of contracting coronavirus, for example:

Can the worker’s hours or days of work be varied, to allow them to avoid commuting into work via public transport at peak times?

Can the worker be allowed to work from home when the onward transmission of coronavirus is at its peak?

Minimising the impact of emergency measures such as travel restrictions/school closures

It is possible that in the coming weeks and months, we will see the use of emergency measures aimed at delaying the spread of coronavirus.

Based off the experience of other countries, these may include travel restrictions, school closures, and the banning of public gatherings. Such measures may increase the percentage of the workforce who are unable to attend work well beyond those who are ill or self-isolating.

Employees are entitled to a reasonable amount of unpaid time off when their child’s school is closed. Those suffering travel disruption which prevents them attending work are currently not entitled to be paid.

Employers should start to consider what steps could practically be taken to preserve business continuity and mitigate the impact of such emergency measures, for example:

Do you have technology that allows workers to work remotely if necessary and, if so, is this robust enough to cope with an increased volume of home working?

Do workers leave work each day prepared to work remotely tomorrow if necessary, e.g. take their laptop home?

Could affected workers attend a workplace, flexible business hub or cafe closer to their home?

Can meetings take place via skype or similar technology?

Can affected workers be switched to alternative duties that can be carried out remotely (with unaffected workers transferred to cover for affected staff)?

Can training take place now to facilitate workers to cover the duties of their colleagues if required?

Can the business continue to operate with a skeleton workforce and, if so, which staff are considered essential?

Can workers, for whom working from home is not viable, be instructed (or allowed) to take some of their annual leave during the period of special emergency measures (to minimise the financial impact and make them available to work later in the holiday year)?

Do you need to place restrictions on taking annual leave (within those permitted by the contract and Working Time Regulations 1998) to free up more staff cover during the peak of coronavirus infection and whilst emergency measures are in place?

Do your employment contracts have provisions that allow the temporary lay-off of employees and, if so, do you know when this can be triggered and understand their rights and entitlements if you lay them off?

Do you have a communications plan, so you can provide your workforce with regular situation updates as well as actions taken?

Businesses across the globe are going to face significant challenges from coronavirus over the coming weeks and months. Those who get their business continuity planning right will be best placed to respond to the emerging crisis and to bounce back quickly afterwards.