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28 July 2020

Returning to work: employee rights and coronavirus

As many businesses begin to re-open and employees start to return to work, many workers still have concerns about how safe their workplace is during the pandemic.

A recent HR survey carried out by Steeles Law highlighted the biggest concern for employers and employees was around implementing new health and safety measures in the workplace to ensure it was a safe place for workers to return to. While government guidance still recommends that employees should be encouraged to work from home if they can, employers have a responsibility to maintain a safe workplace.

Employment Chartered Legal Executive, Denise Traube, answers common questions raised by employees and their employment rights if they refuse to return to work because they believe their needs have not been met.

Q1. What are the current restrictions for businesses opening during the pandemic and what guidelines are in place to protect employees?

The restrictions for businesses opening are different for every industry.  On 10 July 2020, the government loosened restrictions again but has suggested new ‘COVID-19 secure’ guidelines, further information and links to guidance for businesses can be found on the government website: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/further-businesses-and-premises-to-close/further-businesses-and-premises-to-close-guidance.

An employer should follow 5 practical steps to protect employees returning to work, these are

  1. carrying out a Covid-19 risk assessment,
  2. develop cleaning, handwashing, and hygiene procedures,
  3. help people work from home,
  4. maintain 2m social distancing where possible,
  5. where people cannot be 2m apart, manage transmission risk.

Q2. Is an employee entitled to refuse to return to work during the coronavirus pandemic if they feel their workplace is not safe?

If an employee has a genuine concern about the safety of the workplace, this should be raised with the employer and the employer should take all reasonable steps to review the employee’s concerns and address any health and safety issues that it brings up.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Regulations, workers are protected if there is a genuine belief that the workplace is not safe. It is recommended by ACAS that businesses work with their staff to try and reach an agreement with them about returning to work. Employers should be careful about trying to force an employee back to work if they have genuine concerns as they may expose themselves to risks of claims.

Q3. Is an employee entitled to sick pay if they are isolating due to them or a member of their household showing coronavirus symptoms?  

An employee is entitled to statutory sick pay while they are isolating.  However, an employee may be entitled to company sick pay if they have a contractual entitlement to it.

If an employee cannot work, they should liaise with their employer as soon as possible with the reason for absence and how long they are likely to be off for.

Q4. If any employee has to take time off to look after a dependant, what rights to leave do they have? 

Under the Employment Rights Act 1996, employees have the right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to take necessary action to deal with particular situations affecting their dependants.  These situations include the illness of a dependant, the breakdown of arrangements of care and an unexpected incident which involves the child’s school.

Government guidance recommends employees liaise with their employers as soon as possible, with details of how much time you may need so it can be agreed.

Q5. What can an employee do if they feel they are being put at risk or treated unfairly by their employer during the coronavirus pandemic?

An employee should raise any health and safety risks or feelings of unfair treatment with their employer.  This can be done by raising a grievance and speaking to their HR department.  The employer should have procedures they must follow in order to deal with the grievance or concerns raised.

Contact us

If you would have further questions regarding any of the points raised in our Q&A, or you wish to speak to a member of the Employment team, please do not hesitate to call 01603 598000 or email employment@steeleslaw.co.uk. Appointments are available at our Diss, Norwich and London offices or at your offices by appointment.

*The information provided in this article is designed to provide useful information on the subject, not to provide specific legal advice.

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