Bugs and business: How to protect your practice and workforce during a pandemic

When a pandemic like coronavirus hits the headlines, and starts to multiply in bodies and minds, many organisations begin to consider the business risks that can arise

This is an edited version of an article first published by the Business Leader

Employees are a key part of any organisation but also, clearly, an area where a business can be vulnerable to significant risk in its ability to continue to function. While the outbreak and spread of a pandemic cannot be controlled, businesses can be proactive and take steps to try and mitigate the effect on its employees and productivity. Hannah King, employment lawyer at B P Collins, advises what business leaders should do in the event of a pandemic.

Health and safety of employees

In order to fulfil its obligations towards its employees a business must keep itself and its employees informed of the current risks to health and best practice. Most of this information and guidance will flow from the government and organisations should implement a system to keep them fully abreast of any developments and advice, such as travel bans.

Obtaining this information is the first step, but a business must then have in place an adequate and effective system of communicating this to its employees. This may involve using multiple methods of communication such as ‘phone, email and text messages. It is important that this information is regularly reviewed and kept up–to-date.

Absences

Often, a conflict can arise between keeping genuinely sick employees away from the workplace and ensuring that there are enough employees present for the business to keep adequately functioning. There will also be concerns regarding whether an employee is genuinely sick or simply taking advantage of the situation.

In circumstances as severe as those which we are currently experiencing it would be best to err on the side of caution, as the need to prevent the spread of any disease, and to protect your employees, is paramount. A robust and clear policy that those who are unwell should stay away will not only help limit the spread of any virus, but also give your employees confidence that if they come into work they will be relatively safe.

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To mitigate the impact of absences, consider requests to work from home favourably, where this can be accommodated, or adjustments to working hours to limit travel during high volume rush hours, for example.

When considering, and dealing with, absences from the workplace in exceptional circumstances such as a pandemic, a business may well need to review, and be flexible with, its policies and procedures. For example, an employee who would normally return to work as soon as they felt well enough to do so, should not return until they have received confirmation that they are not infectious.

In addition, a business may receive requests for additional and/or longer periods of dependent care leave where an employee’s child has fallen ill, rather than the employee themselves. A conflict may arise relating to the length of an absence, and the amount an employee is entitled to be paid, during such times; a lot of this will come down to what is said in an employee’s contract.

Temporary lay-off and short-term working 

In the event of a temporary downturn in work an organisation may want to consider temporarily reducing its workforce during a quiet period. Broadly speaking, laying off employees means that the employer provides employees with no work (and no pay) for a period, while retaining them as employees; short-time working means providing employees with less work (and less pay) for a period, while retaining them as employees.

An organisation will be in breach of contract if it lays off an employee, or puts them on short-term working, without the contractual right to do so; this could lead to employees resigning and claiming constructive dismissal. In the absence of any contractual right, the only option would be to hold discussions with employees in such circumstances to try and reach an agreement.

You should also consider amending your contracts, going forward, to include such a provision if you think this is something you are likely to want to be able to rely on in the future.

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