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Employers’ guide: returning to work and Covid-19

On 22 February 2021, the government announced its Covid-19 roadmap to easing lockdown restrictions, detailing a phased approach to re-opening businesses gradually and dependent on several circumstances to protect people’s safety.

The government has stated that for the foreseeable future workers should continue to work from home wherever possible. Those who are able to work from home will allow those who have to attend workplaces in person to do so while minimising the risk of overcrowding on public transport and in public places.

If a worker cannot work from home they should travel to their workplace, if it is open, in sectors like food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution and scientific research in laboratories, but hospitality and non-essential retail must remain closed.

So now that the UK’s lockdown measures are slowly loosening again, with the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme extended until the end of  September 2021 and the return of some employees to work, what next? There will be many ongoing issues to manage relating to new processes and practices after the COVID-19 outbreak, which may lead to changing or even a reduction in roles for employees in your business. This guide sets out some of the employment law and related business issues you may face and some practical pointers on how they can be dealt with.  

How will staff return to the workplace?

There are different ways businesses have been affected by the government’s lockdown rules. Certain businesses have not been able to trade at all, some may have done so on a limited basis, with some or all staff furloughed or working from home, and others will have been fully operational but with all staff working remotely. There are common areas that all businesses will need to consider when managing a return to the workplace.

It is likely that there will be some form of social distancing for a long time and so those staff who can work from home will probably be expected to carry on doing so for some time. Meanwhile, those who have more of a requirement to attend the workplace will be able to gradually return in greater numbers.

Any plans for returning to the workplace will need to be fully compliant with the most recent government and public health guidance and you should clearly communicate to staff how you are making the workplace safe and looking after their wellbeing.

If you have an employee assistance scheme, advise employees of this or how they can get further support if they are struggling with adjustment when returning to work. Employers should also clearly communicate the procedure staff should follow if they feel unwell at work or at home. The same reminders as immediately prior to lockdown should be made about frequent hand washing/sanitising and facilities should be provided for this. PPE required for the setting and related training should be provided by the employer if staff are coming into contact with the public. Regular testing of staff attending the workplace should be provided and until the end of March 2021 can be ordered for free online for your workplace if your employees are unable to work from home.

There is no prescribed way that employees will be brought back to work, but subject to government guidance, it is advisable to give reasonable written notice of return to employees of at least 48 hours. 

Employers will need to be aware and careful to consider and quickly deal with any tension between staff. All staff will have had different experiences over the last 12 months in terms of the amount of work they have carried out, their domestic situation and potentially illness and bereavement. Having an up-to-date and practical grievance procedure and open dialogue with employees on their return to work will assist with dealing promptly with these issues.

What are the key points underpinning the government guidance about returning to work?

It is likely that on or around 12 April 2021 more workplaces will be able to open more widely as outdoor hospitality, non-essential retail, personal care activities, libraries and outdoor attractions such as zoos will be able to reopen. Having a plan in place about how your workplace will operate and communicating it clearly to your staff before this date, is advisable. There were five key points that the government set out in their guidance about the return to work and being COVID-19 secure following the last national lockdown and these are a good guide to work to.

If you are able to, work from home: All reasonable steps should be taken by employers to help people work from home. Employers should plan for the minimum number of people needed to be on site to operate safely and effectively, for example, workers which are necessary to carry out physical works, supervise work, or conduct work in order to operate safely. Before returning a staff member to the workplace consider whether it is essential, agreed between the parties and sufficiently safe.

If employees remain working from home you will need to monitor their mental and physical wellbeing, including providing them with all the equipment and information they will need to work from home safely and effectively and help them stay connected to those operating on-site.

Working from home should be the first option, but if your staff cannot work from home and your workplace has not been told to close you should advise when your staff will be expected to return to the workplace and the safeguards that will be put in place first.

Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment: Paying careful attention to current health and safety employment and equalities legislation, a COVID-19 risk assessment will need to be carried out before the return of staff and after consulting with employee representatives or recognised Trade Union Health and Safety representatives, as appropriate, to establish what guidelines to put in place.

It is important to listen to those carrying out the work, as they are likely to be the ones who best understand the risks related to their work. Employers with over 50 employees should publish the results of their risk assessments on their website.

The risk assessment will be specific to your business, but the types of things which need to be looked at are:

  • Workplace set up
    How can staff maintain a safe physical distance from each other? For example, in an office environment, you will need to set up desks at least 2 metres apart from each other. If you do not have the space or resources to do this, it might mean staggering working times or days for staff to attend the office. Even to access the workplace you may need to consider whether lifts should be out of action or a one-way system on the stairs only, if possible. As soon as anyone accesses the office it is recommended that they should be required to wash hands or use hand sanitiser before touching anything inside the workplace.
  • Communal areas
    Areas such as break-out rooms, toilets and kitchens should all provide hand washing facilities and information but should also be limited to use by one person at a time. It would be a good idea to think about preventing use of communal facilities such as a fridge, microwave, kettle, crockery unless they can be cleaned thoroughly after every use and before the next person uses them. Separate lunch and break times could be allocated to avoid staff using communal areas at the same time.
  • Meetings and third parties or customers entering the workplace
    Where possible meetings should be held remotely and not in person, to avoid being in close confines with others and to avoid unnecessary travel. However, if meetings are required to be held face to face, you should carefully consider the logistics of the meeting and how the room should be set up. Companies have obligations to take care of the health and safety of third parties and customers entering their premises. Hand sanitising on entry to the building should be requested and careful consideration given as to how social distancing measures can be introduced for deliveries and collections in a business’ specific circumstances.

Social distancing measures: Where at all possible a distance of 2 metres should be maintained between people at all times. Employers should re-design workspaces so that people can remain at least 2 metres apart from each other, zone different areas for different staff and use telephones or walkie talkies, stagger start, finish and break times, create one-way walk-throughs and staircases, open more entrances and exits, to name a few alterations. It is important that employees appreciate what constitutes 2 metres and so signage and floor markings might also assist practically with this.

In an emergency, for example, an accident, fire, break-in or trespass, people do not have to stay 2 metres apart if it would be unsafe. If a first aider is assisting others, they should pay particular attention to washing hands afterwards.

Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, manage transmission risk: If social distancing measures cannot be complied with at work, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and, if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between their staff.

These mitigating actions might include:

  • Increasing the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning.
  • Keeping the activity time as short in duration as possible.
  • Use screens or other physical barriers to separate people from each other.
  • Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible.
  • Reduce the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ so each person works with only one or a few other people. This may mean introducing a shift pattern.

Reinforcing cleaning processes: Workplaces should be cleaned more frequently, paying close attention to high-contact objects like door handles and keyboards. Employers should provide handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers at entry and exit points and encourage more frequent and thorough handwashing. Signage and clear notices to remind employees and other visitors to your workplace to wash their hands and how to do this effectively, are advisable.

The government hopes that these guidelines will encourage employers to have the positive conversations needed with their staff to reassure them that they are taking their health and safety seriously, as unless people feel safe, employees and customers won’t return. No employee is obliged to return to an unsafe workplace.

If the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is concerned that specific employers are not taking measures to control workplace risks, such as not allowing for social distancing at work, it can take enforcement measures against the employer ranging from specifically advising them on measures they should take to imposing enforcement notices. The government has budgeted an extra £14 million for the HSE, for extra call centre employees, inspectors and equipment if needed.

Testing: Whilst it is not mandatory, if as many employers as possible sign up to regularly test their employees, this should reduce transmission among those who cannot work from home. Testing twice weekly can also provide confidence to workers and customers in the workplace.

There are three options:

  1. Employer-led – you can set up your own on-site testing outside of NHS Test and Trace service.
  2. Use a third-party provider – you can choose to use an accredited third-party private sector (non-NHS) provider who may be able to provide on-site COVID-19 testing services. You would need to pay for this service, but can still order the free government testing kits by online.
  3. Community testing- if you have fewer than 50 employees, even if an individual does not have symptoms they can attend a local authority testing site, in their local area. ​Check your local authority’s website for more information about their testing services.​

What specific sector guides has the government released?

There are 14 specific guides to help provide more detailed advice to particular workplaces, in conjunction with the more general advice provided by the government, these are for:

  1. Construction and other outdoor work – this category includes, amongst others, construction, energy and utilities, agricultural work, forestry, waste management and transport infrastructure such as railway work and highway services.
  2. Factories, plants and warehouses – includes industrial environments such as manufacturing and chemical plants, food and other large processing plants, warehouses, distribution centres and port operations.
  3. Other people’s homes – this could be if you deliver to, visit or work inside other people’s homes, such as cleaners or plumbers, or to delivery workers just delivering at front doors for a short time. Nannies are not covered if they only work for one family.
  4. Laboratories and research facilities – for those who work in or run indoor laboratories and research facilities and similar environments including engineering centres, clean rooms, prototyping centres, wet labs, wind tunnels, computer labs, simulators, material development labs and specialist testing rooms

    Labs and research facilities may face particular challenges in complying with social distancing measures as the type of work carried out in labs often requires on site collaboration between people, in close proximity. It may not be that there is the option of shifts and floor layouts may be limited. There will also be a challenge in respect of cleaning sufficiently, as many items like testing machines and apparatus, may be used very frequently by many different people and may not be able to be adequately cleaned between uses.
  5. Offices contact centres and other indoor places of work – including all kinds of offices, contact centres and operations rooms.
  6. Restaurants, pubs, bars and offering takeaways/delivery – this guide applies to any food preparation or food service setting where food is sold inside, outside or for takeaway or delivery, whether this be by bars or restaurants, food delivery services, takeaway and catering.
  7. Shops and branches – this includes non-food stores such as clothing stores and other retail which must remain closed for the moment as well as those shops which are already open, such as supermarkets, local food stores, petrol stations and chemists. Branches include bank branches and other open money businesses.
  8. Vehicles – including those who work as couriers, mobile workers, lorry drivers, work in on-site transit, from work vehicles and field forces.
  9. Close contact services – such as hairdressers, barbers, beauticians, tattooists, sports and massage therapists, dress fitters, tailors and fashion designers.
  10. Heritage locations- like those working and volunteering in historic parks, gardens and landscapes and ruins, and monuments open to the elements, even where entry is paid for.
  11. Hotels and other guest accommodation – for people who work in or run hotels.
  12. Performing arts – arts organisations, venue operators and participants, for example.
  13. Grassroots sports and sports facilities – for those working in grassroots sports and sports facilities
  14.  The visitor economy – for those who work in indoor and outdoor attractions and business events and consumer shows.

For further specific information check the government guidance directly.

What do the guides say about face coverings and other PPE at work?

Where employees are already using PPE to protect against non-COVID-19 risks, they should continue to do this, however COVID-19 is a different type of risk to those normally faced in a workplace, and needs to be managed through social distancing, hygiene and fixed teams or partnering, not through the use of PPE (unless Public Health England advises otherwise, such as in the case of hospital workers).

It is important that workplaces do not encourage the precautionary use of extra PPE to protect against COVID-19 outside clinical settings or when responding to a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. Unless the risk of COVID-19 transmission is very high in your workplace, your risk assessment should reflect that the role of PPE in providing additional protection is extremely limited. If a risk assessment does show that PPE is required, employers must provide properly fitting PPE to workers requiring it, free of charge.

The evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect the wearer, but may serve as marginally beneficial protection to others if you are infected but asymptomatic or have not yet developed symptoms.

A face covering can be very simple and just needs to cover your mouth and nose in enclosed spaces where social distancing isn’t possible. This is not the same as a face mask used by health and care workers and are not the same as the PPE used to manage risks like dust and spray in an industrial context. Face coverings are not likely to make an appreciable difference to transmission and so are not legally required to be worn. Other measures such as limiting contact duration and number of contacts and frequent handwashing remain the best ways of managing risk in the workplace. Face coverings should therefore not be relied upon as risk management for the purpose of their health and safety assessments.

If employees choose to wear a face covering employers should support safe use of these and advise workers they should wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before putting a face covering on, and after removing it, avoid touching the mask or their face whilst wearing a covering and change the face covering if it becomes damp or has been touched. Face coverings should be machine washed or carefully disposed of and hands washed thoroughly after handling a used face covering.

Are there any documents or policies I should update before staff return to work?

Once you have carefully considered how you would like your staff to return to work, it is advisable that a clear set of policies are in place to ensure that staff are sure of what is expected of them. You might want to consider:

  • Are the company’s sickness, health and safety, homeworking, and disciplinary policies up to date? If they are not, or you are unsure if they are fit for purpose under the current circumstances, it would be advisable to contact an employment law professional to discuss as soon as possible.
  • Would a new Covid-19 policy be beneficial for your business? If so, clearly an employee with coronavirus symptoms would be requested to remain at home, but what about if an employer notices an employee has symptoms while they are at work? In that case would an employee be directed to go home? If so, would they be paid? Would the employee be disciplined if they refused to go home?
  • Could you consider a mandatory vaccination clause in the contract of new employees? This may be controversial but could possibly be justifiable depending on the role of the employee and who they come into contact with. It is recommended that you seek professional advice before inserting this type of clause.
  • Would a compulsory testing policy be helpful? If so, how would this be implemented, and would contractual agreement be required for this? Data protection issues may also be relevant here.

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What are the Health and Safety considerations for the employer on the return to the workplace after COVID-19?

There should be a carefully devised return to work plan, including clear processes for avoiding COVID-19 from being able to enter the workplace, or if it does, to avoid it from spreading from person to person or from a surface in the workplace.

A full risk assessment must be carried out as set out above. You should also consider including how cleaning will be carried out, waste disposed of and any other potentially problematic operation carried out at your workplace.

Before employees return, you may wish to consider online training or meetings on how processes will change and to allow for questions to be asked by employees and answers to be provided before they return.

Protecting the health and safety of employees, customers and third parties on its premises must be at the forefront of employers’ minds when re-opening the workplace. As well as complying with the continuing public health guidelines set out by the government, the statutory duties under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 require employers, amongst other things, to:

  • Ensure employees are provided with training, information, instructions, and supervision which allows them to work safely.
  • Keep premises well maintained and safe to access and safe to work in both physically and mentally with safe equipment and sufficient resources, including PPE. Storage, use, and transport of substances must also be safe.
  • Have a clear and up-to-date written health and safety policy, and inform employees of its existence, where it can be found and of any updates.
  • Provide all that is required under health and safety law free of charge for the employee.

Employers also have a common law dutyto safeguard employee health, safety, and wellbeing, including providing a safe place to work, safe equipment and system of work and competent staff. Employers can also generally be vicariously liable for acts constituting a breach of this common law duty by their employees, if committed in the course of their employment.

Moving forward, it may be a useful practical step to ask employees if they have or think they have had COVID-19 or if they have been vaccinated and to keep a record of this to ensure safety and other business functions can be adequately covered. Finally, in case someone does become infected with COVID-19 as a result of attending work, it would be advisable to check your insurance policy, to make sure that you are covered in the event of a claim.

Do all staff need to attend the workplace? If not, who should return to work?

The return to work and re-opening of the economy as a whole as set out in the government’s roadmap, is a gradual process. It is unlikely that you need all your workforce to return to the workplace at first due to a lack of business to return to, or because work has been carried out perfectly well from home and can continue to be carried out there for the time being. If your staff are continuing to work from home you must ensure that you are keeping in touch and monitoring hours worked and wellbeing, including asking employees to undertake display screen and desk risk assessments, as well as asking employees to identify and deal with risks in their own environment, as you are still responsible for their health and safety.

Due to the nature of COVID-19, the more people who enter the workplace the higher risk the workplace poses of infecting its staff and visitors, so limits will have to be put in place and deciding how this is done is pivotal. A good starting point might be to ask staff members who feel they need to return to the workplace to better carry out their role or to ask those who are happy to volunteer to return for another reason. If there are too few volunteers there would need to be a business decision made on what roles will be needed to be performed in the workplace, giving consideration to those staff who are shielding or particularly vulnerable if infected with COVID-19. If there are too many employees volunteering in the same department or at the same level of management, the employer will need to decide, without discriminating, who should and should not return to the workplace or devise a rota for return on specific days.

It may cause tension in the workplace if some employees are asked to return to work and others are still furloughed, either under the government scheme or an employer scheme. Some employees may prefer to remain furloughed than receiving an additional 20% pay and some may wish to return and be told they must remain on furlough leave and only be paid 80% of their salary. Open dialogue with employees and the option of a three-week rota for furlough to rotate employees might be an appropriate method of managing these tensions.

If at all possible, the easiest but most expensive option is to bring back all employees on their previous terms and conditions, but this will only be able to happen when an employer believes they will have near-normal trading conditions quickly and any social distancing and other government guidelines can be easily followed.

Can furlough leave be extended once the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ends?

The government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been extended until 30 September 2021. You do have the option of flexible furlough, where you can bring back furloughed employees into the business part-time, as well as having employees on furlough full time.

In order to avoid making redundancies and to give your business a longer time to consider what to do, you could, with the agreement of your affected employees, agree to extend furlough on the same or revised terms. Although the business will have to fund this itself, without the benefit of the government grant after the end date of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. If agreed with employees, it may also be possible to furlough new employees or rotate employees on furlough so that employees on furlough feel valued and do not become isolated or deskilled.  

Whilst this may not be an option for many smaller businesses, this can avoid redundancy costs and if an agreement is sought before an employer considers dismissing 20 or more employees, there will not already be a requirement for collective consultation. However, if an extended furlough scheme is a formal alternative to redundancy of 20 or more employees, collective consultation will be required. 

If an employee’s contract of employment contains a lay-off clause, this could be of use. However, lay-off provisions will require you to pay minimum guarantee payments for some of the time and are subject to the implied term of trust and confidence. So you should consult with employees first and give reasonable notice of any lay off to avoid a breach of contract claim. Also, be aware that employees laid off for four or more consecutive weeks, or six weeks in any 13-week period, can resign and claim a statutory redundancy payment in certain circumstances. Layoff, therefore, is only a very short-term solution. Alternatively, it will depend on the original agreement to furlough staff and whether the terms will be changing as to whether a further agreement will be required between the employer and employee for the extended furlough leave. If your furlough letter to individual employees did not include a specific end date, then you can continue to keep staff furloughed on the same terms as the CJRS, but funded by the company and not the government after the end of the scheme. If your furlough letter did include an end date or linked furlough to the CJRS, written agreement from staff will be required for the changes in dates of furlough leave. If you are in doubt, our specialist employment solicitors can discuss your business’ specific requirements with you.  

Does the business require the same staffing levels as before COVID-19? If not, are there measures which can be taken to avoid redundancies?

Many businesses will not have the option to bring back all employees on their previous terms and conditions in the short or longer term. If this is the case, these are a few of the options available for employers to consider before making redundancies:

End furlough and bring employees back to work on reduced hours and pay

This could be a useful option, if youwant to retain trained employees and avoid the short-term costs of redundancy. If you believe in the longer term you will require the staff retained for longer hours and employees are prepared to work flexible and reduced hours, this may help you to retain your workforce. As reducing hours and pay are fundamental changes to an employee’ terms and conditions of employment, you will require employee agreement in writing in order to make these changes.

If an agreement to these changes is sought before an employer has considered it may have to dismiss 20 or more employees, there will not be a requirement for collective consultation. However, if the proposal is a formal alternative to redundancy, or forcing the change by dismissing and re-engaging, for example, means that collective consultation will be required.

Where an employer has a contractual right to impose short time working, this could be used. A provision of this kind is subject to the implied term of trust and confidence, so the employer should consult with employees first and give reasonable notice to avoid being in breach of contract. The statutory lay-off provisions mentioned above also entitle employees who have been kept on short time for four or more consecutive weeks or six weeks in any 13-week period to resign and claim a statutory redundancy payment in certain circumstances. But employees might not want to terminate their employment to receive a redundancy payment in the current economic climate.

End furlough and bring employees back to work on reduced pay but the same hours

If the same level of staffing is required because trading is likely to return to normal soon but there is insufficient cash flow to pay all employees in full in the short term, this option might be useful.As stated above, reduction in pay is a change to terms and conditions and requires agreement in writing from the relevant employee.

Offer unpaid or part-paid leave or sabbaticals

If cash flow is a problem and trade is not expected to return to previous levels quickly, but retention of trained and skilled staff is important, this might be an option for you to explore. Employees may wish to agree to this if they have caring responsibilities or are happy to have a little longer out of work. Sabbaticals are usually voluntary, and the employer should advise employees that it will consider applications and has the right to decline requests (for example, if someone is crucial to the business). If a sabbatical is agreed, its terms should be in writing and signed by the employer and employee before the sabbatical begins.

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What about if redundancies are required? What process does the employer have to follow to do this?

Unfortunately, the government’s furlough scheme and the above measures may not be enough to prevent some employers from having to make redundancies. If there is a requirement for redundancies to be made there will need to be individual consultation and if 20 or more redundancies are proposed to be made at one location, the employer will have collective consultation obligations which may be carried out during or after furlough leave.

The redundancy process itself must, as usual, be as a result of a genuine redundancy situation, provide reasonable warning and meaningful consultation to affected employees. Employees must be selected, ‘pooled’ and, if required, scored on a fair basis with consideration of alternatives to redundancy, including possible suitable alternative employment and a fair procedure. If this is not carried out correctly and the employee has more than two years’ continuous service, they may have a successful unfair dismissal claim. There is no minimum service requirement if the employee alleges certain things in respect of a redundancy, such as that their selection was on a discriminatory basis.

Assuming collective consultation can be undertaken during the furlough period (which has not been confirmed) this might be used by employers who cannot get agreement to any of the above or know they need to make redundancies but could reduce redundancies by using the furlough scheme to absorb some of the costs of consultation.

Employers may choose to start redundancy consultation at the end of furlough either because collective consultation during furlough is prohibited under the CJRS as it amounts to ‘work’, or where the employer does not decide on how to proceed and formulate redundancy proposals until after the furlough period.

Collective consultation will need to be carried out in the usual way:

  • With employers consulting employee representatives, whether elected employees or a recognised trade union, ‘in good time’ about the reasons for the proposals
  • The numbers and descriptions of employees the employer is proposing to dismiss
  • The total number of such employees at the workplace
  • The proposed selection method as well as the proposed method of carrying out the dismissals
  • The proposed method of calculating any enhanced redundancy payment
  • Certain information regarding the use of agency workers and ways to avoid dismissals and their impact

The legal minimum periods for collective consultation are 30 days, where between 20 and 99 employees are to be dismissed and 45 days, where 100 or more employees are to be dismissed. This means thatyou must start collective consultation no later than 31 May 2020 if you wish to make 20-99 employees redundant as soon as the CJRS ends on 30 June 2020 and by 16 May 2020 if you planning to make 100 or more people redundant by 30 June 2020.

In ‘special circumstances’ the minimum consultation periods can be dispensed with and it is possible that circumstances related to the current climate may qualify as ‘special circumstances’, but you must still show that you have engaged in meaningful collective consultation so far as is reasonable in the circumstances and aimed to reach an agreement, even though this may not be possible.

Practically speaking, employers will need to be creative with collective and individual consultation. Whilst people may not be able to meet face to face for consultations or elected as employee representatives face-to-face, this can be done electronically and how this can be done compliantly should be considered. If you have any specific questions about this, please contact a specialist employment solicitor.

What is required by an employer where staff are advised to shield or self-isolate after the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ends?

If you have employees who are required to shield as they are classed as particularly vulnerable to infection and complications of COVID-19, or employees who live or care for someone who is classed as high risk, you should ty to allow them to continue to work from home where possible. This will hopefully now start to ease as those who are most vulnerable are vaccinated and shielding should start to come to an end over the coming months.

After the return to work, if staff develop symptoms of COVID-19 or live with someone who does, they will still need to self-isolate for 14 days. The rules around this have not changed and so employees should continue to treat employees as on sickness absence if they are sick with coronavirus symptoms and will be entitled to SSP, company sick pay or if they do not qualify for these, universal credit and/or contributory Employment and Support Allowance.

What are the rights of employees who have suffered a bereavement?

If you have employees who have suffered the bereavement of a partner or other family member, there is no statutory right to bereavement leave apart from in limited circumstances where the victim is a child and the employee is a parent of that child. Having said this, being sympathetic to requests for additional time off during this period, and paying the employee, if possible, is likely to motivate the employee to come back and work hard for the employer if they have been treated well during a difficult time. 

Specifically where a family member has died with COVID-19, family members may have been unable to see their loved one for some time before death, and may not have been able to attend the funeral and so may require an extended period of flexibility and support to grieve when compared to other circumstances. If you have a mental health support contact or occupational health which the employee might be able to utilise, you should make the employee aware of how to access these services.

If your employee has died from COVID-19, you will need to support their colleagues and any mental health or occupational health support that you can provide should be made accessible for staff who need it. You should ensure that you are in touch with the family of the employee not only to offer your condolences, but for practical purposes relating to return of company property and confidential information and if Death In Service benefits are part of your employment package this will need to be arranged. You will of course need to be tactful and careful in respect of timing when dealing with the above.

How should annual leave be managed after furlough leave?

Staff are now allowed to carry forward some of their statutory holidays if they are unable to take them in the current holiday year. It is advisable to have an open dialogue with employees both during and after furlough and express how the business would be best served by employees taking holiday at certain times and giving as much notice as possible of those times. If employees have booked holiday and are working from home, it is a good idea to encourage employees to continue to take this leave so that they have a break from work, even if they are not physically in the workplace. This will also help to spread out annual leave so that too much annual leave does not become accrued by all employees who may want to all take the whole of their leave entitlement later in the leave year, making it more difficult for the business to accommodate.

How will international aspects of my business be affected?

If your business operates internationally, there are more complexities in dealing with not only UK restrictions and guidelines, but also those of other nations, which may vary significantly to those of the UK. Your business should try to operate as consistently as possible without being in breach of any of the guidelines and respecting the restrictions in the different geographical regions your business operates in.

International travel is likely to remain disrupted for some time, even when other restrictions have been lifted and quarantine rules are likely to play a part in many countries’ defence against a second wave of infection of COVID-19, meaning it could prohibit a lot of business travel where the duration of stay is likely to be under two weeks in many cases. Employers should also be aware of health and safety responsibilities to employees and frequent business travel is likely to place employees at a higher risk of infection than if they were to work from the office or at home. Employers should carefully consider if there is another way around international travel for meetings, such as video conferencing.

Other business issues which will need to be dealt with on the return to work but are not directly related to COVID-19

There will inevitably be practical and administrative matters to deal with, such as ensuring that payroll staff are fully aware of who is on furlough and the start and end dates of furlough for each of those staff members, so that they return to their full pay once their furlough leave ends.

There are also other business matters which will need to be considered and have nothing to do with COVID-19. If your business trades internationally, employs EU nationals or may recruit outside of the UK, you will need to look at the implications on your business as a result of Brexit and how you may need to adapt your operations to make them more profitable due to the new changes.

You may have delayed other things such as professional development of staff, or updates to contracts and other employment documents. If this is the case, it might be a good time once everyone is back in the office to get on top of these issues.

It will be critical that on the return to work employers first and foremost take care of their people and safeguard their health and well-being. You should communicate clearly with staff so that they understand in good time how any practices will change and whether any changes to their role, pay or hours will be required. Many people will be concerned and anxious about being in workplaces or travelling to workplaces and will want a clear rationale as to why they cannot continue to work remotely if they have been successfully doing so for many weeks. Employers should try to be as flexible as possible and be able to move between different plans depending on what the changing government advice is to ensure compliance and keeping the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff as the main priority.

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