Guide

Coronavirus: 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 non-essential workplaces and venues to close. Find out which businesses and venues must close 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 are 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 a two metre 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).

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

Employers should consider some simple steps to help protect the health and safety of staff. It is good practice for employers to:

● businesses and workplaces should encourage their employees to work at home, wherever possible
● if someone becomes unwell in the workplace with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature, they should be sent home and advised to follow the advice to stay at home
● employees should be reminded to wash their hands for 20 seconds more frequently and catch coughs and sneezes in tissues
● frequently clean and disinfect objects and surfaces that are touched regularly, using your standard cleaning products
● employees will need your support to adhere to the recommendation to stay at home 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.
● employees from defined vulnerable groups should be strongly advised and supported to stay at home and work from there if possible

Employers must not single anyone out. For example, they must not treat an employee differently because of their race or ethnicity. Treatment of employees should not be affected by any illness or supposed illness.

What should I do if someone develops symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace?

If anyone becomes unwell with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature in the business or workplace they should be sent home and advised to follow the stay at home guidance. See COVID-19: guidance for households with possible coronavirus infection.

If they need clinical advice, they should call 111. In an emergency, call 999 if they are seriously ill or injured or their life is at risk. Do not visit the GP, pharmacy, urgent care centre or a hospital.

If a member of staff has helped someone who was taken unwell with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature, they do not need to go home unless they develop symptoms themselves. They should wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds after any contact with someone who is unwell with symptoms consistent with coronavirus infection.

It is not necessary to close the business or workplace unless government policy changes.

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 £118 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 £73.10 a week if you are over 25, for eligible people affected by COVID-19 or self-isolating in line with advice from Day 1 of sickness, rather than Day 8

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.

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: Support for paying sick pay to employees.

When will employers be able to claim their Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) rebate? Why can’t I reclaim it now?

The government will work with employers over the coming months to set up a repayment mechanism as soon as possible for employers reclaiming SSP. Existing systems are not designed to facilitate employer refunds for SSP.

HMRC's Time to Pay scheme may offer more immediate support by helping you to delay tax payments until your business has recovered. Read guidance on HMRC's Time to Pay scheme, which supports businesses and self-employed individuals in financial distress and with outstanding tax liabilities by providing support with their tax affairs.

See: Coronavirus: Support for paying sick pay to employees.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

What about certifying absence from work?

Employees can 'self-certify' for the first seven days off work due to sickness or if they have been advised to self-isolate due to COVID-19.

If your employee needs to self-isolate due to COVID-19 for more than seven 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.

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

An employer should set out:

● close friendship groups or workgroups
● any employee living in the same household as a confirmed case

Contacts are not considered cases and if they are well they are very unlikely to have spread the infection to others:

● 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.

Can I cancel leave I have already agreed with my employees?

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

See taking holiday - notice periods, restrictions and sickness.

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.

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.