Guide

Coronavirus: FAQs - employer and business questions answered

COVID-19: Managing staff health, pay, leave and absence

Find answers to common employer questions on topics including, protecting the health and safety of staff, as well as what to do if an employee has to self-isolate and obligations around leave and sick pay.

FAQs: 

Can my employees work?

● Your employees may be able to travel to and from work, but only where the work they do absolutely cannot be done from home.

● The government has instructed certain workplaces and venues to close. Find out about the timeline for business reopening in Northern Ireland.

● You should discuss working arrangements with your employees. If possible, take steps to facilitate employees working from home, including providing suitable IT and equipment to enable remote working.

● If your employees cannot work from home, and your workplace is not required to close, then they can still travel to work, provided they are well and neither they nor any of their household is self-isolating.

● If you have employees in offices or onsite, you should ensure that they are able to follow Public Health Agency guidelines on social distancing. This includes, where possible, maintaining the recommended distance from others and washing their hands with soap and water often for at least 20 seconds (or using hand sanitiser gel if soap and water is not available).

See Coronavirus: Workplace safety guidelines and social distancing.

What if an employee does not want to come to work?

Some people might feel they do not want to go to work if they're afraid of catching coronavirus.

An employer should listen to any concerns staff may have. If there are genuine concerns, the employer must try to resolve them to protect the health and safety of their staff. For example, if possible, the employer could offer flexible working. See flexible working: the law and best practice.

If an employee still does not want to go in, they may be able to arrange with their employer to take the time off as holiday or unpaid leave. The employer does not have to agree to this. See holiday, other leave and sickness.

If an employee refuses to attend work, it could result in disciplinary action. See unauthorised absence - Acas guidance.

Working safely | How do I help protect the health and safety of my staff from coronavirus?

People should still work at home where they can. Where working from home is not possible, there is government guidance covering different types of working environment, to help employers protect their workforce and their customers from coronavirus while still continuing to trade. This information may also help businesses to restart, so long as this can be done safely.

See working safely in different business settings and workplace safety guidelines and social distancing.

Where the social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full in relation to a particular activity, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue in order to operate, and, if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between their staff.

Staff who are unwell with symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) should not travel to or attend the workplace.

Staff may be feeling anxious about coming to work and also about impacts on livelihood. Workplaces should ensure staff are fully briefed and appropriately supported at this time.

Any member of staff who develops symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) (a new, continuous cough and/or a high temperature) should be sent home and stay at home for at least 10 days from onset of symptoms. If the member of staff lives in a household where someone else is unwell with symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) then they must stay at home in line with the stay at home guidance.

Employees will need your support to adhere to the recommendation to work from home wherever possible to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) to others.

Those who follow advice to stay at home will be eligible for statutory sick pay (SSP) from the first day of their absence from work.

Employers should use their discretion concerning the need for medical evidence for certification for employees who are unwell.

Working safely | Should I carry out a risk assessment?

A risk assessment is about identifying sensible measures to control risk in the workplace.

Current guidance sets out that workers should be encouraged to work from home unless it is impossible to do so. Where work cannot be carried out from home, the guidance states that social distancing should form a key part of the employer’s risk assessment.

The requirement to conduct risk assessment still applies to employers, the guidance does not change this. Employers have a duty under law to protect the health and safety of their workers, and other people who might be affected by their business. This includes assessing, and addressing, the risks that COVID-19 represents.

COVID-19 is a new risk that should be incorporated into risk assessments. Employers must make sure that their risk assessment addresses the particular risks posed by COVID-19.

Employers have a duty to consult their employees as part of their risk assessment.

Employers should take steps to review their risks assessments to ensure measures are effective and to take account of any changes in circumstances that could lead to new risks.

Self-employed people whose activities may pose a risk to the health and safety of other people should meet the objectives in the guidance, but the actions they take will depend on their working environment.

Businesses that have less than five workers do not need to record their risk assessment but still need to take all reasonably practical steps to reduce the risks of COVID-19.

The Health & Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) provides an example risk assessment template for businesses when carrying out a risk assessment for coronavirus - see example workplace risk assessment template for COVID-19.

For an overview of the risk assessment process and how to assess the health and safety risks in your business, see health and safety risk assessment.

Sick pay | Who is eligible for Statutory Sick Pay?

Employees can get £95.85 per week Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if they’re too ill to work. It’s paid by employers for up to 28 weeks. See further information on understanding statutory sick pay.

Employees who follow government advice to stay home if they, or someone in their household, display symptoms of coronavirus and cannot work as a result of the illness, will be eligible for SSP.

Eligible employees will receive SSP from the first day of sickness absence. This applies for sickness absences starting on or after 13 March 2020.

The government will allow small and medium-sized businesses and employers to reclaim Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) paid for sickness absence due to COVID-19. This refund will cover up to 2 weeks’ SSP per eligible employee who has been off work because of coronavirus.

Anyone not eligible to receive sick pay, including those earning less than an average of £120 per week, some of those working in the gig economy, or self-employed people, may be able to claim Universal Credit and or new style Employment and Support Allowance.

Please note that the statutory payment rates changed on 6 April 2020 so you may need to apply a different rate depending on when the sickness took place. See new statutory payment rates for 2020-21.

For those on a low income and already claiming Universal Credit, it is designed to automatically adjust depending on people’s earnings or other income. However, if someone needs money urgently, they can apply for an advance through the journal.

Sick pay | What Statutory Sick Pay support is available for the self-employed affected by coronavirus?

Those who are not eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), for example, the self-employed or people earning below the Lower Earnings Limit of £120 per week, can now more easily make a claim for Universal Credit or Contributory Employment and Support Allowance:

• for the duration of the outbreak, the requirements of the Universal Credit Minimum Income Floor will be temporarily relaxed for those who have COVID-19 or are self-isolating according to government advice, ensuring self-employed claimants will receive support
• people will be able to claim Universal Credit and access advance payments upfront without the current requirement to attend a jobcentre if they are advised to self-isolate
• contributory Employment and Support Allowance will be payable, at a rate of £74.35 a week if you are 25 or over and £58.90 if you are under 25, for eligible people affected by COVID-19 or self-isolating in line with advice from Day 1 of sickness

See Universal Credit and Coronavirus: making a benefit claim

To find out about additional support available for self-employed individuals - see Coronavirus: Support and advice for the self-employed.

Statutory Sick Pay rebate | How can I find out whether I am eligible for the Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) rebate?

Employers with fewer than 250 employees will be eligible. The size of an employer will be determined by the number of people they employed as of 28 February 2020.

See: Coronavirus: Check if you can claim back Statutory Sick Pay paid to employees due to coronavirus (COVID-19).

Self-isolation and pay | What if an employee isn't sick but the doctor has advised them to self-isolate?

The Government has stated that if NHS 111 or a doctor advises an employee or worker to self-isolate, they should receive any Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) that is due to them. If the employer offers contractual sick pay, it’s good practice to pay this.

See coronavirus: employer guidance from the Labour Relations Agency

Workplace closure and pay | What if an employee is not sick but the employer tells them not to come to work?

If an employee is not sick but their employer tells them not to come to work, they should get their usual pay.

See coronavirus: employer guidance from the Labour Relations Agency.

Staff caring for dependants and pay | What if an employee needs time off work to look after someone?

Employees are entitled to time off work to help someone who depends on them (a 'dependant') in an unexpected event or emergency. This would apply to situations to do with coronavirus. For example:

● if they have children they need to look after or arrange childcare for because their school has closed
● to help their child or another dependant if they're sick, or need to go into isolation or hospital

See parental leave and time off for dependants.

There's no statutory right to pay for this time off, but some employers might offer pay depending on the contract or workplace policy. See understanding statutory sick pay.

The amount of time off an employee takes to look after someone must be reasonable for the situation. For example, they might take two days off to start with, and if more time is needed, they can book leave.

Staff caring for dependants and time off | How much time off can be taken for a dependant?

The law does not say how much time can be taken off, or how many occasions. However, the law states that the amount of time an employee is allowed to take off should be 'reasonable'.

It's a good idea if the employer is as flexible as they can be, depending on the employee's circumstances.

See time off to deal with emergencies involving dependants.

Staff leave and absence | What about certifying absence from work?

Employees can normally 'self-certify' for the first seven days off work due to sickness.

However, as your employee will need to self-isolate due to COVID-19 for 10 days, they can get an online self-isolation note from the NHS website.

See: Coronavirus: Online isolation notes - providing proof of absence from work.

If your employees are required to self-isolate, they should follow your usual sickness reporting process. You should use your discretion concerning the need for medical evidence for certification for employees who are unwell.

Staff leave and absence | Can I cancel leave I have already agreed with my employees?

An employer can refuse or cancel holiday, but you must let an employee know beforehand by at least the same amount of time as the amount they requested.

See taking holiday - notice periods, restrictions and sickness.

Staff leave and absence | Can I disallow leave requests for future leave from employees?

An employer can:

• refuse holiday at certain times, for example during busy periods, but they cannot refuse to let you take any holiday at all
• make you take holiday at certain times, such as Christmas or bank holidays
• say how much holiday you can take at one time

See taking holiday - notice periods, restrictions and sickness.

Staff leave and absence | Can my staff carry over unused leave?

It may now be possible for staff to carry over unused holidays into the next two leave years if it was not reasonably practicable to take their statutory holiday entitlement due to coronavirus.

It is for an employer to decide whether it is reasonably practicable for the worker to take holiday.

Where it is not necessary for a worker to carry over statutory holiday entitlement, it is an employer's responsibility to ensure that their workers receive and take their full statutory holiday entitlement in the year to which it relates.

Workers who feel their rights are being denied may complain to an employment tribunal.

For more information, see holiday entitlement and statutory holiday pay.

Flexible working requests | Am I able to turn down flexible working requests from staff, including requests to work from home, if this has a negative impact on my business?

You can only turn down a flexible working request, including a request from an employee to work from home, if there’s a valid business reason. It’s important to make your decision based on facts and not personal opinion.

By law, a request can only be turned down if:

• it will cost your business too much
• you cannot reorganise the work among other staff
• you cannot recruit more staff
• there will be a negative effect on quality
• there will be a negative effect on the business’ ability to meet customer demand
• there will be a negative effect on performance
• there’s not enough work for your employee to do when they’ve requested to work
• there are planned changes to the business, for example, you intend to reorganise or change - the business and think the request will not fit with these plans

See flexible working: the law and best practice.

Working from home costs | Will I have to pay my staff if they claim for costs associated with them working from home?

The employer should set out:

• What the company will provide. For example, furniture, phone, phone line, Broadband, printer, fire extinguisher, paper.
• What the employee is expected to provide. For example, heating and lighting.
• Who will pay for any installation and other necessary costs, and, if required and agreed, how costs can be claimed back.
• Who the equipment belongs to, who is responsible for maintaining/moving it and how this will be done, and whether it can, or cannot, be used for personal matters by the homeworker or their family.