Employers have a duty of care towards their employees and must take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of their workforce. Here are some of the main issues that will affect employers regarding the recent virus outbreak and how to deal with them.
It’s important to remember that your employees will be worried about the virus. In addition to having a duty of care to protect health and safety, you also need to consider their wellbeing. Consider any wellbeing initiatives you have and remind employees of them, for example, an Employee Assistance Programme.
Give employees the facts
The risk of anyone who has not recently been to an affected area picking up the infection is very low, unless someone they are close to has the virus. Risk of becoming infected will differ depending on personal circumstances, but it is important to convey to employees the reality of the situation to keep concerns proportionate to the risk.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is regularly updating its travel advice for all affected areas.
The advice from the DFA is ‘to avoid all non-essential travel to and within China.’ Consider alternatives to any planned travel to China or other affected areas, e.g. postponing a trip, or carrying out meetings via Skype.
If travel is deemed necessary, then you should effectively, but proportionately, manage the risk. Always know where your employees are and where they are going. Ensure they are given clear instructions on hygiene.
If employees report symptoms of the virus while they are travelling, you will have to support them. You should also consider making plans to enable any of your employees who are based in China to return to Ireland.
Employees returning from affected areas
Employees returning from China or other affected areas should contact their local Department of Public Health for advice on measures that may need to be taken for 14 days following their return to Ireland.
If employees have any symptoms of novel coronavirus, including cough, fever, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, on arrival or at any time in the 14 days following their return they should self-isolate straight away and phone their GP or emergency department rather than turning up in person. Employees who have recently returned from an affected area will be prioritised by their local Department of Public Health.
Existing health conditions
When determining your response to the virus, pay particular attention to the needs of certain employees who may be vulnerable, e.g. those with existing respiratory conditions such as chronic lung disease, diabetes, cancer as well as those who are pregnant or are older.
Suspending employees who may have been exposed to the virus
Where you have concerns about a non-symptomatic employee (particularly if it is known or suspected that the employee has had contact with someone known to have the virus) then the best advice might be to play it safe with a brief period of suspension on precautionary grounds.
Where you choose to suspend returning employees just as a precaution, it will have to be on full pay unless the contract gives you a right to suspend without pay for this reason (which is unlikely).
Employees who have been advised to self-isolate
If an employee is instructed to stay away from work for 14 days, there is no legal requirement to pay employees who are under these instructions unless they report to you as sick during that time in which case normal sickness absence and pay procedures should apply. However, you may choose to continue to pay employees, particularly if they were in an affected area on business.
If employees who fall into this category attempt to come to work, you should remind them of the medical instructions and tell them to go home for the stated period. Again, there would be no legal requirement to pay the employee because it is not the employer advising the employee to stay off work, it is necessary under official government advice.
A second option is to offer the employee the option of taking paid annual leave because this helps reduce the risk that the employee feels compelled to attend work which would put other employees at risk of catching the virus.
If organisations choose not to pay employees who have been advised to self-isolate, they must ensure that the approach is consistent and adheres to custom and practice. An inconsistent approach may lead to claims if one employee receives less favourable treatment than another.
Employees who refuse to come into work due to concerns
If an employee has returned from an affected area or is worried about catching the virus and so refuses to attend work, organisations should listen to the employee’s concerns and offer reassurance. An employer's response to this will depend on the actual risk of catching the virus and will depend on the specific circumstances including whether anyone in the workforce has already been diagnosed or there is another real risk of exposure.
Employers may decide to offer a period of paid annual leave or unpaid leave, or allow the employee to work from home where this is feasible. Responses should be proportionate to the specific situation.
Discrimination, bullying and harassment
Coronavirus is not a reason to treat employees differently because of their nationality. You should be alert to ‘banter’, and other instances of harassment, between employees about the virus which relates to someone’s nationality or ethnicity and ensure that your zero-tolerance stance to harassment is maintained.
The World Health Organisation’s standard infection control measures are:
- frequently cleaning hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water
- when coughing and sneezing cover mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue – throw tissue away immediately and wash your hands.
- avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough
- if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, phone your GP (do not visit the GP surgery) and tell your GP if you have been in an affected area in the last 14 days