Update – returning to work after COVID-19
21 July 2020 by Bushra Elzubeir
Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced that Government guidance would follow on or after 1st August 2020, giving employers more discretion to ask employees to return to work provided that they can work safely. At the present time, the Government says that people should work from home if they can.
Changes could mean that continuing to work from home is possible, although returning to the workplace would be encouraged.
For those who do return to work in England, Government guidance on working safely across a range of sectors is available and was updated on 17th July 2020. The updated guidance includes information about managing risk in hotels and other guest accommodation settings and in connection with the visitor economy.
Is my workplace safe?
Employees will be wondering how their workplaces will be kept safe. Employers must still follow a strict code of guidelines, including but not limited to observing the “1 metre plus” rule for social distancing, and introducing one-way systems to minimise contact, frequently cleaning of objects and in communal areas and in shops and storing returned items for 72 hours before returning them to the sales floor.
What if I am shielding?
Those who were shielding will, from 1st August 2020, no longer be required to shield and may return to work if their workplaces are COVID secure. Employers will though have to be especially careful to protect such people, ACAS says. There are approximately 2.2 million people in England classified as being at high-risk. Such people include those who have received organ transplants or are on immuno-suppressants.
Many people who are working in industries such as retail, in bars and in restaurants, have already returned to work. Offices are also being discussed as on the map for returning to work. Employers have been asked to be “extremely careful” about taking decisions to discipline employees or sack them when/if they decline to return to work because of health and safety related concerns. Employees who do not show up to work run the risk of not being paid or being disciplined for the same notwithstanding the climate.
Can I refuse to go back to work?
Under employment legislation, employees do have the right to refuse to return to work if they regard themselves as being in “serious or imminent” danger.
How will I travel to work?
Updated Government guidance advises people that they may use public transport to get to work. However, many people will be concerned about using public transport to get to work during this period – because the risk of infection is still there.
Face coverings are currently required on public transport in England and the cost of acquiring such personal protective equipment will often need to be borne by employees themselves. This will not come as a welcome piece of news for them, not least because as a corollary of travelling to work exposure will inevitably rise and the cost of protection from exposure will rise accordingly.
As a measure, employers are also encouraged to stagger working times outside rush hour and to provide parking and bike storage where possible. It does appear that face coverings will not be made mandatory for office workers on-site in England though. Much will rely upon the arrangements which employers make to protect their employees in their working environments, particularly since the 1 metre rule may/may not be adhered to, depending on what facilities are like at the workplace.
What is the “plan for jobs”?
Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, presented his “plan for jobs” to Parliament on Wednesday 8th July 2020, to outline how the Government will boost job creation in the UK. The plan for jobs is the second part of a 3-phase plan to secure the UK’s economic recovery from Coronavirus. As part of the plan to support jobs, a job retention bonus will be introduced to help firms keep furloughed workers. UK employers will receive a one-off bonus of £1,000 for each furloughed employee who is still employed as of 31st January 2021.
Inevitably though, there will still be redundancies and employers will need to get prepared for having to make difficult decisions about jobs in the near future.
The Government recently clarified the position in relation to employers claiming employees’ notice pay as part of the furlough scheme allowance. There was widespread confusion caused over whether the use of taxpayers’ cash was possible within the rules to pay employees serving notice periods their notice pay. One such example could be seen in the case of Wagamama which sparked controversy around the high street restaurant chain’s paying staff serving redundancy notice periods with CJRS revenue.
In an update made to its furlough guidance on 17th July 2020, HMRC said: “You can continue to claim for a furloughed employee who is serving a statutory or contractual notice period, however, grants cannot be used to substitute redundancy payments”.
Contractual notice is usually agreed in the contract of employment or in a written statement of terms and conditions. The period is there often to give employers more time to recruit replacement employees for those who are leaving. It, therefore, makes sense that if the design of the CJRS furlough scheme is to take some of the weight off employers who wish to protect the financial stability of their undertakings, then paying for the notice periods of employees, albeit that they are leaving their employer’s employ, is still a tangible benefit and one which will protect the viability of those businesses, potentially, in the future.
If you have any employment matters and would like further advice in relation to the same, please contact Fisher Jones Greenwood LLP for expert legal advice, call 01206 700113 or email [email protected]. For more on Employment Law during the Coronavirus pandemic, visit our Coronavirus Legal Advice hub.
This blog post follows one written in early June which has more guidance on returning to work after COVID-19.