Julie Galbraith: The coronavirus and the workplace
Julie Galbraith, employment partner at Eversheds Sutherland in Dublin, looks at the coronavirus outbreak from the perspective of Irish employers.
The spread of the ‘Wuhan coronavirus’ is a global concern with the World Health Organisation now declaring a global emergency and, at the time of writing, two confirmed cases in the UK.
In addition to the personal concerns the coronavirus also gives rise to a number of issues for employers. These range from assessing the risks faced by their staff whilst at work, and developing measures to control those risks; complying with relevant laws and guidance; identifying how much flexibility they have to adapt their working arrangements to ensure business continuity; and special measures to protect vulnerable employees.
Whilst the cores issues are the same globally, the solutions will vary from country to country. Ireland is no different. You may think that it is not likely to have much effect here and if you do, I hope that you are right. Wuhan may not have been very well known until a few days ago but it is, in fact, a crowded metropolis with connections to every part of the globe – even this ‘wee country’.
What should employers in Ireland do?
At the outset, employers and managers must regularly monitor the situation, and take guidance from established best practice from international bodies such as the World Health Organization.
Is this really a workplace issue?
The short answer is yes. All employers have a duty of care toward staff. This means that employers must consider whether their existing arrangements take account of the risk of harm arising from the coronavirus. This will entail conducting a risk assessment to identify the likelihood of staff contracting the coronavirus whilst at work and what measures could control that risk.
The risk assessment should review the specific business and the work which its employees undertake. An employer with global operations and whose staff travel internationally on a regular basis will need to undertake a more detailed risk assessment than an employer with a small presence or number of employees solely based in Ireland.
If the virus continues to spread employers must also consider what special measures are required for vulnerable staff. Having undertaken this assessment employers should consider implementing a proportionate response and review it regularly as the situation develops.
What is a proportionate response?
Start to consider workplace policies such as those governing health reporting, office and personal hygiene, social distancing and the use of protective equipment.
For example, suspending non-essential travel, spreading your team across several locations so as to improve operational resilience and providing hand sanitisers for staff. Other measures could include requiring employees to report any symptoms of poor health.
Employers should certainly require employees returning from a high risk area to remain at home for a period of time.
Should employers consider flexible working?
If possible, then absolutely consider flexible working and allow employees to work from home. As is the case for many colds, flus and other illnesses, the virus is likely spread by infected people coughing and sneezing. By physically having less staff in your office or place of work, the risk of wider infection may be reduced.
If an employee is quarantined do you have to pay them?
At a basic level, the obligation to pay arises where an employee has worked. If an employee is ill and not able to work, many employers will not pay their staff. There is no legal right to payment while absent due to illness. Employees have recourse to illness benefit which is paid by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
There is likely to be a distinction where the employer has asked employees to remain at home even if they do not have symptoms. In those circumstances, employees should be paid. He or she is technically fit to work but the employer has either requested (or as is the case in parts of China, has been directed by the government) that the employee remain at home. Ideally, the employer/manager will have planned ahead so that the employees can carry out some form of work while in quarantine.
Should you call a halt to all business travel for the time-being?
Employers should certainly review whether travel is necessary or if meetings could be conducted by video link. Staff may refuse to travel during this period. As always, the key is to be proportionate, reasonable and consistent.
Try to anticipate potential scenarios, devise legally robust and fair principles for dealing with them and ensure that managers are trained and understand their responsibilities in these uncertain times.
What is the one piece of advice you would give employers right now?
Keep abreast of the WHO and government guidance, consider contingency planning and adapt those plans accordingly. Look at working from home and flexible working at this point, are there small IT changes you can bring in to make this more efficient?
The key is to plan ahead and to show leadership, thereby enabling the company to be well prepared to support staff and to maximise the resilience of the business.