Over the past weeks there have been many coronavirus-related questions on Practice Index’s HR and Employment forum. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions.
In some cases, we advise that you seek advice from a HR or employment law professional before taking action; PLUS members can email the HR Advice Line [PLUS] too.
- A staff member says they don’t feel safe at work due to the risk of infection. What should I do?
This can be a really tricky situation to deal with. Firstly, listen to the staff member and hear their concerns. Are these worries valid? Is there anything you can do? Do they have suggestions about what could be done to make their work safer? Are these doable?
If you feel the staff member’s assessment of risk or expectations for workplace adjustments is unrealistic, explain this respectfully. Many people are living with fear right now, and fear isn’t always rational. If the staff member is dissatisfied with your response, check if they wish their complaint to be considered as a formal grievance and proceed appropriately.
If the situation proves difficult to resolve, or the employee refuses to attend work, take advice from a HR or employment law professional before taking further action. Employees have a statutory right to refuse work if it would put them in imminent danger; hence these types of situations can put employers at legal risk if not handled with the utmost care and sensitivity.
- Can I ask people to temporarily change their work duties or location during the current crisis?
Yes – in the current pandemic situation, temporary adjustments to work arrangements to ensure staff or patient safety will usually be considered reasonable management instructions. However, as always, it’s best to make changes in consultation with the individual staff affected. They may have their own useful suggestions to make.
See Practice Index’s Pandemic Staffing Policy [PLUS] for further guidance.
- What if these temporary changes to work arrangements look like they’re going to last for a long time?
If the changes are likely to be in place for a prolonged period (three months+ perhaps) it’s probably best to agree them in writing with the employee as a temporary change of contract. Remember to set a date when the arrangements will be reviewed again. If the changes affect more than 20 staff in one workplace then collective consultation processes may apply. Speak to a HR or employment law professional for details.
In the majority of cases, it’s likely that staff will be keen to agree to changes in the interest of keeping themselves and their patients safe.
- If staff members are working from home during the crisis, what are my responsibilities as an employer?
Your responsibility to ensure staff health and safety in the workplace extends to their own home in this situation, so as soon as is practical, ensure you carry out a homeworking risk assessment. Consider using Practice Index’s Homeworking Policy [PLUS] to guide you through this.
It may be beneficial to provide the staff member with access to suitable resources such as IT equipment, etc. to enable them to carry out their work effectively. However, some staff may be happy to use laptops that they have at home already, in which case you will need to consider the security of such devices in relation to data protection and anti-virus software. Your IT services provider should be able to advise you on this.
At your discretion, you may wish to consider making a financial contribution towards the staff member’s heating, electricity and/or WiFi costs. But this is not compulsory.
Remember also about communication, engagement and staff well-being. Do try to prevent people feeling isolated whilst working at home. Can you use video-conferencing and online chat functions to facilitate interaction for example?
- If one of my staff members appears symptomatic in the workplace, can I send them home?
Yes. Whilst normally a simple cough wouldn’t be a good reason to remove someone from the workplace, in the current circumstances and public health framework it’s entirely reasonable. The staff member needs to isolate themselves from colleagues and patients ASAP. (Afterwards you will want to thoroughly clean and disinfect areas where they have been.) The staff member will be entitled to sick pay for at least a week, but if their symptoms are mild and work is available at home, they could do that instead.
- I risk-assessed a staff member’s role and decided they should work at home. But they’re refusing. What can I do?
Asking a staff member to work from home is likely to be a reasonable request in the circumstances, but do listen to the employee to understand their concerns – you may be able to alleviate them.
If the employee has mental health concerns about being isolated from their usual workplace, you should factor these into your health and safety risk assessment, but it doesn’t mean they’re automatically entitled to stay in the workplace. There may be ways of supporting their mental health at home.
If a reasonable risk assessment and consultation process has been followed, you’re entitled to insist that staff members work from home. However, as is so often the case in people management, persuasion is a better way to get the right result than coercion!
Absence from work
- I heard that rules for statutory sick pay (SSP) have changed because of the coronavirus crisis. What does that mean?
Yes, government rules for SSP have been temporarily changed in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes are threefold:
- SSP is now payable from day one of absence, rather than from day four.
- SSP is available to those who are self-isolating or shielding – even if they’re asymptomatic.
- SSP costs relating to the coronavirus can be reclaimed from the government by organisations with fewer than 250 staff.
- Coronavirus Isolation Notes are available for staff instead of the usual Fit Notes.
- If a staff member is asymptomatic but self-isolating for 14 days, are they entitled to sick pay?
As mentioned in Q7 above, the staff member would be entitled to SSP from day one of absence. Depending on the wording of your absence policy, any entitlement to company sick pay above SSP is likely to be at the practice’s discretion.
- If a staff member is self-isolating and wishes to work from home, can they do this?
Yes, assuming work is available and you’re satisfied they’re fit enough to do it.
- One of my staff has received a shielding letter from their GP. What pay are they entitled to and what support can I offer?
If the shielding staff member can work from home, then they’ll be entitled to full pay as usual. If working from home isn’t an option, then they’ll be entitled to SSP (or company sick pay at your discretion).
Shielding at home can be a lonely and frightening time for many. You can support staff by keeping in touch and encouraging continued interaction among colleagues. If you have access to an Employee Assistance Programme or other forms of emotional support, then it would be good to remind shielding staff of this.
- What are the entitlements of staff who have partners or other household members who are officially shielding?
Work from home should be offered wherever possible. If this isn’t available, and the staff member wishes to remain at home, then SSP isn’t payable. However, other options such as annual leave, unpaid leave or even discretionary paid leave could be used.
- Should I continue with my usual absence policy (including any sanctions for persistent absence) during the pandemic?
This is your choice. Following a standard procedure for reporting and recording absence will help you manage issues during the pandemic. However, if there’s a risk that fear of disciplinary sanctions could encourage staff to not follow proper self-isolation rules, or punish those that do, you may choose to make temporary changes to your policy in order to reassure people. See Practice Index’s Pandemic Staffing Policy [PLUS] for suggestions.
- I suspect that a staff member is ‘playing the system’ regarding absence during the pandemic and using self-isolation rules to avoid work. What can I do?
Firstly, take a step back and consider whether the absences might be genuine or if there’s a link to mental health/anxiety in these difficult times. Talk to the staff member about how they’re feeling about work and try to identify any particular problems. It may be that simply discussing the absences openly will resolve the issue.
If the situation continues, take HR or employment law advice before initiating any type of disciplinary action for absences connected to the pandemic, as sanctions could expose the practice to legal risk.
- What is the furlough scheme and can I use it?
The ‘furlough’ scheme is a government policy allowing organisations to claim up to 80% of individual salary costs for staff unable to work due to the impact of coronavirus. However, scheme guidance makes clear that organisations such as GP practices that receive public funding for staff costs are not usually eligible to furlough staff.
Staff with particular needs
- Are there any adjustments or protections I should be putting in place for staff who may be particularly vulnerable to the virus (e.g. the over-70s) but who haven’t received a GP shielding letter?
In line with health and safety legislation, you should risk-assess work arrangements for these staff, using current public health guidance to assist you. (Remember that there may be some differences between public health guidance in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.) As a result of this risk assessment, you may consider offering the staff member work from home or put in place other measures to decrease their risk of infection.
If a decision is taken for the staff member to stay at home and not work, SSP won’t apply. However, other options such as annual leave, unpaid leave or even discretionary paid leave could be used. Note: If the staff member wishes to be in work and the employer refuses to allow this (where no work is available from home) then advice from a HR or employment law professional should be taken before any salary is deducted.
- Are pregnant staff members entitled to any special protection or treatment during the pandemic?
Health and safety risk assessment in relation to coronavirus is essential for pregnant staff. You should use government public health guidance to assist you in this process. (Remember that there may be some differences between public health guidance in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.) You may also want to consider guidance from other expert bodies such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. As a result of this risk assessment, you may consider offering the staff member work from home or put in place other measures to decrease their risk of infection.
If, following a risk assessment, you feel you’re unable to provide a safe working environment for a pregnant member of staff, they’ll be entitled to medical suspension at full pay.
- Due to changes in work arrangements, I can no longer offer a disabled staff member the adjustments (in equipment, tasks, routines, etc.) they usually receive. What should I do?
This is a tricky issue that carries legal risk for the employer. You should seek immediate advice from a HR or employment law professional, but also discuss matters with the staff member and try to involve them in finding solutions to the problem.
If it isn’t possible to offer the disabled staff member suitable workplace adjustments, they may need to be absent on full pay until the situation changes. But in most cases, collaboration and creative thinking should produce a positive result.
- Can I take action regarding performance or conduct issues that arise during the pandemic?
The short answer to this is ‘yes’. But any process should be carried out in a socially-distanced manner where possible (e.g., using video-conferencing software) and must take into account the emotional needs of staff during this period. Consider delaying or avoiding disciplinary processes for non-urgent issues. ACAS has produced some useful guidance on this subject.
- An urgent vacancy has arisen that needs to be filled ASAP. What does a socially-distanced recruitment process look like?
Socially-distanced recruitment is entirely possible and acceptable in these strange times. Consider using online application methods and video interviews. Rules regarding identity checks for right to work and DBS/Disclosure Scotland purposes have been temporarily relaxed to allow documents to be checked via photo/video rather than needing to see physical copies.
Once your recruitment is complete, you may want to make as much initial training as possible online so it can be done by new staff at home.
We hope this compilation of the most frequently asked questions since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic is useful for managing your practice. If you have specific concerns, please email the HR Advice Line [PLUS]
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