Coronavirus (COVID-19): employer response guide

Updated: Apr 8

Thanks to Thrive Partner Robert Bowker and RoTan HR Services who provided this comprehensive CIPD guide that will help you plan your organisation’s response to the global health emergency



What should employers be doing in the current situation? Organisations should focus on planning and prevention with both urgency and calm. Do what you can to immediately protect staff and to cope with the changing environment. The government has now introduced measures (starting 23 March) requiring that people should only leave home for one of four ‘limited purposes'. This means people should only travel to and from work where work absolutely cannot be done at home and that many businesses will now close (a full list can be found on the government website). Your employees' health and well-being is paramount. Employers have a statutory duty of care for people’s health and safety at work and you should do everything in your power to support people remaining at home or taking necessary precautions.

HR basics to follow

  • Make sure everyone's contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date.

  • Make sure all staff are aware of the latest government advice, your response as an employer and what you are doing to protect people’s health and reduce the risk of infection spreading.

  • Continue to communicate as the situation changes.

  • Make sure managers are clear on any relevant policies and processes, for example sickness reporting and sick pay, and your homeworking policy.

Protect your workforce

  • Keep your workforce well-informed of the ongoing developments and official advice from the Government and National Health Service and promote resources that are available.

  • Advise employees to take precautions. This includes working from home where possible and avoiding non-essential social contact (in line with the latest government advice). You can refer to the CIPD's series on remote working for tips on getting the most from remote working.

  • If your business is permitted to remain open under the latest government measures, reduce the spread of infection by providing soap and hand sanitiser gels with alcohol, especially in communal areas like kitchens and coffee areas. Provide staff with hand sanitisers. Increase the frequency and intensity of office cleaning; consider a deep clean; think about frequent wiping down of communal spaces such as kitchens, handrails on stairs, lift buttons, door handles, etc.

  • The UK Government has announced new measures that mean employees who are self-isolating are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) from day one. This includes individuals who may be a carrier of COVID-19 but may not have symptoms and people caring for those in the same household who display COVID-19 symptoms and have been told to self-isolate. The government has introduced measures that will allow businesses with 250 employees or less to reclaim SSP paid for sickness absence due to COVID-19. The CIPD also recommends that employers providing contractual sick pay should provide this if a member of staff is asked to self-isolate by a medical professional, even if they have no symptoms. Alternative options to providing sick pay are to allow people who are asked to self-isolate to work from home wherever possible and continue to pay as normal. For more information on the changes to SSP read the factsheet or visit the government website.

  • Employers should use discretion around the need for medical evidence for a period of absence where an employee is advised to self-isolate. Employees can currently self-certify for the first seven days. Employees can now apply for an isolation note through a new online service. More information is available on the government website.


Protect your business

  • Employers should develop a contingency plan to prepare for a range of eventualities regarding the business impact of the virus. You can download helpful templates from the Coronavirus: support materials page and refer to the remote working series to prepare for the widespread move to working from home.

  • Appoint a pandemic coordinator or team to prepare and update plans and keep on top of official advice.

  • Think about transferrable skills – do you enough people to keep business-critical operations running if you do face staff shortages? Start training people now.

  • Encourage remote working and working from home where possible, to comply with the latest government advice. Consider making laptops available for staff who wouldn’t normally work from home. Encourage team working / external meetings through video conferencing, etc. Make sure there’s the right IT support in place for people.

  • If your business is permitted to stay open consider creative resourcing solutions like staggering shifts or having A and B teams so fewer people are in the workplace at any one time and reduce the risk of infection.

  • Maximise self-service options – for example, self-service tills at supermarkets so fewer staff are needed, encouraging people to do online banking rather than going into branch, etc.


Planning your short-term response: key policies and processes to review and communicate Once you have taken immediate steps to protect your workforce you can look to plan your short-term response. The government has now introduced measures (starting 23 March) requiring that people should only leave home under a list of 'very limited purposes'. This means people should only travel to and from work where work absolutely cannot be done at home and that many businesses will now close (a full list can be found on the government website). You should act now so that you can continue to protect your workforce and allow for as much business continuity as possible. Sick leave and pay

  • Review your policy around absence and where possible be generous with contractual sick pay.

  • Confirm to employees what will happen if they are advised by a medical professional to self-isolate. Be clear about what sick pay arrangements will apply. If NHS 111 or a doctor advises an employee or worker to self-isolate, the Government’s new measures (announced in 11 March) mean they are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) from day one. This includes individuals who may be a carrier of COVID-19 who may not have symptoms and will also apply to people caring for those in the same household who display COVID-19 symptoms and have been told to self-isolate. Refer to our factsheet for more on this.

  • Update employees with any changes to your processes around reporting absence, medical certificates and fit notes. Government advice is to show discretion in asking for written medical evidence. Employees can now apply for an isolation note through a new online service. More information is available on the government website.


Annual leave and pay

  • Review your policy around annual leave and make clear to employees what will happen if they need to cancel their holiday due to travel restrictions.

  • Encourage people to still use any leave they have booked even if travel is not possible; it's important to take time away from work especially if they are now working from home.

  • To prevent workers losing their holiday and to enable key workers to keep working the normal rules on carrying over annual leave have been modified.

  • Amendments to the Working Time Regulations 1998 (see Working Time (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020) mean that all employees (and some workers who do not have employee status such as agency workers, and some casual and zero-hours contract workers) who have not taken all of their statutory annual leave entitlement by the end of 2020 due to COVID-19 have a new legal right be able to carry it over into the next two leave years.

  • Employers can now allow up to four weeks (not the full 28 days) of unused leave to be carried into the next two leave years. The rules say that if it is ‘not reasonably practicable’ for the worker to take some, or all, of the holiday to which they are entitled due to the coronavirus they can carry four weeks forward for two years. The remaining 1.6 weeks of holiday can be carried forward by one year by agreement.

  • The normal obligations to ensure workers take their statutory entitlement in one year or incur a financial penalty are also lifted.


Remote working

  • In line with the latest Government advice, support employees in working from home wherever possible. Use the homeworking questionnaire and the CIPD's series of remote working tips to help you support your workforce.

  • Review health and safety arrangements for any obstacles to remote working and work to remove these.

  • Consider whether you need to make adjustments for any employees with protected characteristics.

  • Invest in technology to facilitate remote working; look into free tools for video conferencing.

  • Be sure that you plan remote working options for all staff groups. Try to plan alternative work where remote working isn't possible.

  • Where remote working isn’t possible, think about pay/continuity etc.

  • Careful planning is needed, along with trust, good comms and people management.

Staff mental health and well-being

  • Be aware that some employees, understandably, may be very worried about catching the virus, while others will have concerns about their family or friends. Listen to people’s concerns and reassure them that any measures taken are to protect people and there is no need to panic. Communicate regularly with the workforce and ensure that line managers are regularly informed about the organisation’s contingency plans so that they can also provide guidance reassure people.

  • Signpost employees to further advice or support, such as employee assistance programmes and any other well-being resources you have available. Consider providing counselling for those employees who are particularly anxious.

  • Keep checking in on people’s workloads and stress levels and offer support where possible. If you can, adjust targets for employees who remain working and be flexible with deadlines.

  • If a large number of employees are unable to work this could lead to other employees working longer hours. In this case you need to ensure you still comply with the Working Time Regulations 1998 around appropriate length of weekly and daily working hours, night shifts and rest breaks.


Planning your long-term response: specific groups of employees and business areas to consider If the decision is made to impose measures such as requiring people to stay at home for a sustained period of time then employers and people professionals will need to consider their long-term plans for business continuity and working from home for a longer time period. This will include looking at specific groups of employees, areas of the business and perhaps changing business practices. Carers

  • The government has confirmed that employees or workers caring for an elderly or sick relative with coronavirus are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) (as this includes individuals who may be a carrier of COVID-19 and who may not yet have symptoms).

  • Employers should look to support homeworking where possible, in line with the latest government advice. Carers for relatives at home could use the statutory right to request flexible working. The other main right for employees with caring responsibilities with an emergency or unexpected problem is emergency dependant leave which enables a short unpaid period off for example to look after ill relatives. This would cover making arrangements to care for the dependant, including an adult family member who is ill with coronavirus.

  • When using emergency dependant leave employees must inform employers as soon as reasonably practicable of the reason for their required absence and how long they expect to be absent. This type of unpaid leave is intended for short periods. The employee will only have the right to be paid if their contract of employment provides for pay.

  • Business productivity and profit will be an issue for many employers; larger businesses might have the infrastructure and funds to cope with long-term remote working in relation to employee absences due to caring for a relative, school closures etc, but smaller businesses may not be able to survive to paying staff if there is reduced productivity. In this situation it may be necessary to consider alternatives such as short term working or lay-offs (see below).

  • Other longer-term arrangements include working from home or adjusted hours. Employers are under no obligation to allow staff with caring responsibilities to work flexibly but in the current situation this may help keep employees working whilst managing their caring responsibilities.

  • Most of those with caring responsibilities at home will already have had a carer’s assessment from the local authority to check the extent of help available (if any) either for the carer or the person they care for. Some local authorities may have an emergency plan in place.

  • Professional care workers will obviously follow stringent infection control measures. Individual carers and agencies will also need to undertake risk assessments and try and put contingency plans in place if any of their staff are exposed to, or show symptoms of, the coronavirus. Individual carers who have to temporarily suspend their care duties, may need to involve other care workers or an agency as part of their contingency plan or make cover arrangements with the person’s trusted family, neighbours or friends.


Working parents

  • Schools in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are now closed due to COVID-19 (except for the children of key workers). The main right for employees in this situation is emergency dependant leave. This covers school closures and other unexpected disruptions to the arrangements to care for the child.

  • Dependant leave is only for putting arrangements in place and is unlikely to be sufficient if schools remain shut for a long time.

  • Other rights which may be relevant include the right to unpaid time off to look after a child up to their 18th birthday known as unpaid parental leave.

  • Whilst parental leave is normally to spend more time with children or look after them during school holidays it may also be an option during a school closure.

  • Each parent can take up to 18 weeks for each child in blocks of a week at a time with a maximum of 4 weeks a year for each child.

  • The normal rules state that if a child has a disability parental leave can be taken more flexibly if there is disability living allowance or personal independence payment for the child.

  • Only employees (not workers) are entitled to unpaid parental leave provided that they have worked for the employer for a year or more and have parental responsibility for the child. This includes step-parents who have parental responsibility.

  • Normally employees must ask the employer 21 days before parental leave starts but employers could waive this notice requirement.

  • In these unprecedented times employers should do everything they can to support employees in working from home whilst caring for children and should offer as much flexibility and understanding as possible.


Atypical/gig workers

  • The legal status of atypical and gig workers is not always clear. There have been many highly publicised cases addressing the extent of rights for workers such as Uber drivers or couriers. Some atypical or gig economy workers could potentially be employees, workers or self-employed. Their status may not have been called into question until considering their rights following the coronavirus outbreak.

  • Whilst employees who self-isolate can access statutory sick pay (SSP) from the first day they are off it is unlikely this applies to some atypical or gig-economy workers.

  • Self-employed people who have to self-isolate, have limited protections as they are not eligible for statutory sick pay (SSP). The precise legal rights of atypical and gig economy workers will depend upon any contractual sick pay and terms of the agreement.

  • As always, the precise legal rights of these workers will depend upon both how the arrangement operates in practice as well as the terms of the contractual documentation. Some atypical workers may in fact be protected as employees.

  • Some organisations using atypical or gig economy workers may decide to offer full or partial sick pay or goodwill cancellation payments even though they are not obliged to do so.

  • Some atypical workers may have provision for payment in the event of cancellation. A goodwill, expenses or an assistance or inconvenience payment following coronavirus closures may have long term benefits of a harmonious, incentivised and engaged pool of workers.

  • The government announced in March 2020 budget that the self-employed (including some atypical and gig economy workers) will be able to claim employment support allowance from the first day of their isolation or illness rather than day eight. However, it is only paid to those who are too sick to work and who meet certain conditions. Those who are likely to benefit are fairly limited. The benefit is worth £73.10 a week, or £57.90 for the under-25s.

  • The government is also temporarily changing universal credit so that the minimum income ‘floor’ of how much the self-employed person would normally expect to earn in a month, is ignored when calculating entitlement to universal credit. This means some individuals will be able to claim over the telephone or online for time they spend off work due to sickness.

  • The government has also announced a new £500m fund to support economically vulnerable people which will be allocated by local authorities.


Emergency volunteering

  • In these unprecedented and challenging times we need to do everything we can to support our health and social care systems.

  • As part of its response the government has introduced a new emergency volunteering leave.

  • Under this special leave employees and workers can volunteer to help organisations such as the NHS and social care providers. A full list of other organisations will be issued by the government.

  • Employees who work for small employers with fewer than 10 employees, civil servants and those working in the legislature, and police officers are excluded from volunteering leave.

  • Employees on furlough leave can volunteer to help (subject to current movement restrictions) as long as they do not provide services to or generate revenue for their own employer.

  • Emergency volunteering leave should be taken in blocks of two, three or four weeks within a 16-week period. An employee or worker can take a maximum total of eight continuous weeks of voluntary leave in two consecutive 16 week periods.

  • Emergency volunteering certificates are issued by the Department of Health, the NHS, or local councils. Volunteers will be given a certificate which they will need to share with their employer, giving three working days’ notice of the leave.

  • Volunteers can be compensated by the body they are volunteering for but they are not entitled to their normal salary during the period of leave.

  • More details are yet to be confirmed but information is available on the government website.


Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and furlough

  • The government has now announced a range of measures to support businesses during this uncertain time. One of these is the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme; under this scheme all UK employers will be able to access support to continue paying part of the salary for those employees who would otherwise have been laid off during this crisis. All UK businesses are eligible and to apply for the scheme businesses must follow the steps outlined below.

  • First, they must designate affected employees as ‘furloughed workers,’ and notify your employees of this change – changing the status of employees remains subject to existing employment law and, depending on the employment contract, may be subject to negotiation. Identifying employees as ‘furloughed workers’ means they will be kept on the payroll without working.

  • Once the new online portal is live, businesses must submit information to HMRC about the employees that have been furloughed and their earnings (HMRC will set out further details on the information required).

  • People who get furloughed must not work for the employer during the period of furlough but usually return to their job afterwards (unless redundancies follow).

  • More information on the scheme is available on business support website. Specific questions are addressed in our coronavirus FAQs.

Short-time and lay-off working

  • If your business is severely affected by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) situation you may need to look at introducing temporary measures in order to protect the workforce and the business.

  • These measures include moving to short time working by agreement with the employees (where employees work less than their regular contractual hours, for example a three-day week).

  • Employers can send employees home on full pay but just because work is not available. Employers generally cannot refuse to pay them.

  • If the situation continues employers can also consider lay-offs (where an employer asks employees to stay at home and not attend work or be paid for a temporary period).

  • Laying off employees can generally only be done if an appropriate clause was incorporated into employees’ contracts. Temporary lay offs due to a shortage historically occurs in the manufacturing sector. Any other sector which does not have this contractual right will face claims for breach of contract, unlawful deductions and constructive unfair dismissal if there is any attempt to impose lay-offs without consent.

  • In some cases a subsequent agreement authorising lay-offs may be concluded between the employer and employees or any recognised union. Employees may agree to temporary lay-offs, or a period of unpaid leave, if they appreciate the difficulty faced by the business and feel the alternative would be the risk of redundancy dismissals.

  • The main qualifying conditions for the statutory guarantee payment are that an employee must: Be laid off for at least one full working day; Have been employed continuously for at least one month, including part-time employees; Have an employment contract for more than three months; Be available for work; Not refuse any reasonable alternative work, including work that isn't in their contract; Not have been laid off because of industrial action.

  • Employees who meet these criteria will be entitled to a small fixed statutory guarantee payment of up to £29 per day. This is limited to five days in any three-month period to partially compensate them for the reduction in salary. The right to this payment applies only to employees, not to contract or agency workers, or the self-employed. 

  • Employees who are affected for four or more consecutive weeks may be entitled to redundancy pay. The employees must resign with written notice of their intention to claim this. Employers can avoid redundancies if they guarantee employees 13 consecutive weeks of work within four weeks of receiving the employee’s notice.

  • Be aware that these are relatively rarely used legal provisions and can only be implemented if there are express, correctly drafted clauses in their contracts. However, in these uncertain times such measures are worth investigating.

  • In rare cases there may be an ability for an employer to lay off which is implied because there is evidence that such a right has been established over a long period by custom and practice.

Redundancy

  • Unfortunately, the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation may lead to some businesses being forced to reduce the size of its workforce to survive (even with support measures like the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme). Several sectors have already warned that they are massively vulnerable to the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Airlines have indicated they cannot sustain current levels of employment and warned staff that job losses are likely. Other sectors immediately affected include hospitality, entertainment, manufacturing (due to disrupted supply chains) and retail but there will be an impact across all sectors. The government have introduced new cash grants and business rate holidays for these businesses (in England only) to combat this so businesses should make sure to explore all of these options before proceeding to redundancies.

  • The normal legal provisions apply which mean that employers are required to take steps to avoid compulsory redundancies (see below).

  • Redundancy is a special form of dismissal which happens in three situations: when an employer has a reduction in the need for employees to carry out work of a particular kind, or the employer intends to cease, continuing the business at a particular workplace and the actual or intended closure of the whole business, as may occur in the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation.

  • Employers will have to follow a correct fair procedure. This includes following the organisation's own procedure (if any) and the following stages including making a statutory redundancy payment, and a notice period payment.

  • The exact redundancy procedure varies but employers who feel that the coronavirus makes redundancies inevitable may already have started the planning stage including consultation and consideration of alternatives. The following stages are usually then involved: identifying the pool for selection; seeking volunteers; consulting employees individually and collectively; information to provide to the representatives; scoring matrix; selection; individual meetings; appeals; confirming redundancies; notification to the DTI; suitable alternative employment; time off for interviews. redundancy payment; counselling and support.


Avoiding redundancies

  • The steps employers can take to avoid compulsory redundancies include seeking applicants for voluntary redundancy or early retirement, encouraging existing staff to work flexibly on reduced hours by agreement, freezing or restricting recruitment, reducing or banning overtime, reallocation existing employees to any parts of the business which are less affected by the virus.

  • Other possible steps include short-time working or temporary lay-offs (see above), reduction in use of self-employed contractors, freelancers and casual workers and pay freezes. It may also be possible to offer early retirement to volunteers (subject to complying with age discrimination provisions).

  • It is a difficult time to take sabbaticals and secondments but those and any form of unpaid or reduced pay leave are alternatives. Other possible schemes include paying employees a reduced allowance whilst they do not work for their employer for a specified period and are free to seek work elsewhere. Other possibilities include executive pay cuts.

  • If employees agree to reduce their working hours for a defined temporary period, the employer should confirm the exact hours to be worked, the start date of the varied arrangement, when the employee will return to their previous working hours and details of how pay will be affected.

  • For more information on redundancy visit the CIPD topic page. CIPD members can also call the employment law helpline on 03330 431 217.

Insolvency

  • Unfortunately, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) situation may also lead to some businesses becoming insolvent or being forced to cease trading.

  • The two main types of insolvency are liquidation and bankruptcy.

  • Liquidation is where a company either cannot meet its liabilities as they fall due and or where the value of company liabilities exceeds its assets. Insolvent limited companies and limited liability partnerships follow a liquidation process to realise the company assets and selling them to pay back creditors. This is a similar procedure to bankruptcy but relates to companies rather than individuals. Following the liquidation, the company is dissolved, and records struck off at Companies House. Thereafter the company will cease to exist.

  • The liquidation process can be started by the company’s directors or creditors who are owed a minimum of £750. A licensed insolvency practitioner acts as liquidator and turns all assets into cash and distributes any proceeds amongst creditors.

  • Solvent companies can also be liquidated using a process known as a member's voluntary liquidation.

  • Bankruptcy only relates to individuals and not limited companies. A downturn in business caused by the coronavirus may lead to bankruptcy where the individual cannot meet their outgoings and commitments. An individual can become bankrupt as a result of being a member of a partnership which has hit financial problems or a sole trader where trade has ground to a halt.

  • The bankruptcy process can be started by the individual or by a creditor who is owed at least £5,000. The debtor can have a fresh start following the bankruptcy, but major assets such as a car or house may need to be sold. Bankruptcy generally only lasts for a year but will affect an individual’s credit rating for six years.


Bereavement leave/pay

  • Even though the mortality rate of Coronavirus (COVID-19) remains low the harsh reality is that employees may face the loss of a friend or family member and you may even lose an employee.

  • To prepare for this eventuality review your bereavement policy (if you have one) and assess if you can be more generous. Be as flexible as you can about leave and pay.

  • There is no legal right to bereavement leave but in this unprecedented situation employers should be as compassionate and supportive as possible.

  • Offer support to employees, share details of any employee assistance programmes and be prepared to listen to concerns.


Risks to consider

Throughout your organisation’s response to the COVID-19 global health emergency there will be people management risks that you will need to be aware of and take steps to address. Business continuity and pressure on remaining staff

  • The outbreak of the virus is very likely to affect employees in your organisation in different ways. It will disproportionately affect some people, for example if schools close and parents need to keep children at home. Some employees may need to keep working while others self-isolate or stop working, and so think about how you can prevent perceptions of unfairness creeping in and keep everyone on board in these exceptional times.

  • If workers are asked to work extra hours to cover for absent staff, make sure you comply with your obligations under the Working Time Regulations.

  • Regularly communicate how much you value everyone’s contribution. If some people are taking on additional responsibilities to bridge gaps, make sure they feel appreciated and this is for a relatively short time. Emphasise that you can only succeed as an organisation and protect your people and the business if you all pull together.

  • Make sure that you are not putting unacceptable levels of demands on people and that they have the support and resources in place to fulfil their tasks, particularly any additional duties.

  • Line managers should be trained and confident to spot any early warning signs of people experiencing stress; make sure they have regular catch ups with people (by telephone or using video conferencing technology if working from home) to ensure they are coping with any extra demands or workloads.

  • Provide clear signposting to any internal and external support for people, such as counselling and an employee assistance programme.


Direct and indirect discrimination

  • Despite the unprecedented nature of this situation, employers still have to remain aware of potential direct and indirect discrimination.

  • One aspect of discrimination which employers could be exposed to is liability for harassment by one employee to another. Employers must take reasonable steps to prevent harassment and tackle inappropriate behaviour and prejudice being shown towards those of Chinese or Italian origins with completely inappropriate misplaced blame for the outbreak.

  • Another potential discrimination risk could arise from refusal of requests for flexible, home or part time working due to school closures where women could be disproportionately affected leading to sex discrimination claims.

  • There is also a risk of disability discrimination claims if, for example, a delayed decision to permit staff to work at home disproportionately affects a certain group for example those with anxiety, asthma or those who have compromised immunity.

  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised that those who have an underlying conditions including heart disease, respiratory conditions and diabetes, have a higher risk of developing a severe illness from the virus. Therefore, employers should carefully consider these employees in the light of the obligation to make reasonable adjustments to the employee’s working arrangements and provide a safe working arrangement. The same goes for older workers as according to the WHO employees aged over 60, have a greater vulnerability.

  • Where there are genuine concerns for any reason including age, infirmity, susceptibility and anxiety the employer must try to resolve these concerns by, for example, offering flexible working, or taking a period of paid leave.


Rotan HR are a small, independent consultancy, who offer a customer focused HR solution to companies who don't have their own function. They can also support companies own HR departments with either specific projects or general support. Services also include psychometric and ability testing either as part of a recruitment process or assisting the development of staff. They can also offer employee surveys, acting as a independent voice to allow opinions to be expressed and reported to the management team.





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