Our team have been dealing with several HR questions over the course of the past few weeks, and the last week in particular as the Coronavirus risks have increased further. The questions are changing by the hour and the challenges for business are increasing every day. We include some of our HR FAQ’s in this bulletin.
HR Q&A on Coronavirus
The websites of the HSE, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Health, the World Health Organisation, The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and The Health Protection Surveillance Centre and others contain all the information and guidelines you need for your organisation and your employees.
For your assistance, we have included some of our FAQ’s here:
1. Q. What are the changes in sick pay that the government announced on Monday evening?
While the legislation has yet to be introduced, the government announced that it would increase statutory sick pay from c. €203 to €305 per week and reduce the waiting period from 6 days to 0 days, for a maximum of 2 weeks where medically required self-isolation is needed, or for the full duration of absence from work where the diagnosis is Coronavirus.
The Government has now urged all employers to support the national public health objectives by continuing to pay employees who cannot attend work due to Coronavirus illness or self-isolation the difference between the special Illness benefit and their normal way i.e. topping up the Illness benefit to the level of the employee’s wages.
Read more about it here.
2. Q. Does this Illness Benefit apply to civil and public servants?
No. Workers in the civil and public sector do not need to apply for Covid-19 related illness benefit as separate special leave arrangements have already been made based on a Circular that has been existence since some years ago.
3. Q. What happens if staff have to leave work in order to self-isolate?
The sick pay policy of the organisation would apply, or the above special Illness Benefit ideally topped up to the level of the employee’s wages.
4. Q. What happens if we have to ask staff to leave work in order to self-isolate? Who pays?
In some sectors, e.g. healthcare, home care, nursing home, etc. it may be necessary to ask staff to leave work in order to self-isolate. In that case, the employer’s sick pay policy would kick in, but if there isn’t sufficient sick pay as per the policy, the employer would be responsible for the employee’s wages for the period of self-isolation during which time they are being asked by their employer not to be at work. Any such decisions to ask employees not to be at work and to self-isolate should be taken only in accordance with the HSE guidelines.
If the organisation sends staff home but have not been advised by the HSE to do so, the organisation is expected to pay the wages of the employee as normal.
Decisions regarding self-isolation should only be made with the advice of the HSE and following their guidelines.
5. Q. In the event that the Coronavirus affects our business and we have no work or have reduced work, what happens?
You need to think of a range of measures that could be implemented, ideally helping to preserve pay and/or jobs where feasible. These include: – employees taking unpaid leave, taking early annual leave, moving to reduced weekly hours for a temporary period, temporary short-time, and temporary lay-off and in the worst case scenario, redundancies. There are other possibilities to consider also including:- allowing employees to take parental leave or parents leave (without the required notice periods), maybe working up time lost now at a future date, altering shift patterns, allowing sabbaticals, etc.
6. Q. What should I consider regarding staff working from home?
We have seen many companies implement or increase their working from home capacity in the past week or so, and many of them have been testing their capacity and security for this on a large scale. The situation is different now for most employers where Home Working may become a reality for many employees rather than a few. The Working from Home policy will need to be reviewed almost daily for the Coronavirus situation we are in.
Some key considerations include remote access, security of data, security regarding files and information being taken home from the office and left in cars, at home and unlocked, GDPR risks, health and safety risks and risk assessments of office space at home need to be completed, security policies and GDPR policies when working from home will need to be reviewed, lone working policies will need updating, and a big effort is required regarding communications with staff when working from home, and staff and team conference calls.
7. Q. What if a staff member doesn’t comply with health and safety measures or PPE?
The employee is obliged under health and safety legislation to comply with health and safety measures implemented by the organisation. The employee also has a responsibility under legislation to protect the health and safety of their colleagues. Thus, every employee should comply with the health and safety measures of the organisation, including PPE, and should they refuse to comply, the normal HR principles would apply, but in an expedited manner in the case of Coronavirus. Thus, they should be advised that PPE, for example wearing gloves, is mandatory, and is not optional. This should be progressed to disciplinary and the employee should be advised that it could lead to dismissal, as the health and safety of their colleagues, and customers, and the safety of the operations of the business e.g. in the food industry, healthcare industry, etc. are paramount. It may be the case that such an employee would be have to be removed from the workplace should they refuse to comply and be suspended. However, advice should be taken.
8. Q. What if we have staff who have notified us that they have an underlying illness that makes them more vulnerable?
A risk assessment would need to be undertaken and advice from the HSE Hotline should be followed.
9. Q. Some companies are doing deep cleans etc. Should we do that?
This isn’t our area of expertise, but it would seem that the cleaning of offices and workspaces should be reviewed and that it would be useful to consider deep cleans etc. We saw Irish Rail and healthcare settings have completed deep cleans where cases were diagnosed. You can reduce the spread of infection by providing soap and hand sanitiser gels, especially in communal areas like kitchens and coffee areas. You can provide staff with hand sanitisers. You can increase the frequency and intensity of office cleaning, do frequent wiping down of communal spaces such as kitchens, handrails on stairs, lift buttons, door handles, etc. Consider a deep clean. This varies from sector to sector and will need to be considered carefully.
Where your employees are interacting face-to-face with customers, extra measures will need to be taken.
10. Q. What happens if the children of our staff are sent home from school or their crèche is closed, etc.?
There is an ever increasing likelihood that crèches will have issues, that schools will close and universities will ask their students to study from home and/or take classes online etc. Working parents will undoubtedly be affected in some of these situations.
Again, measures like working from home, unpaid leave, taking annual leave early, reduced hours, taking parental leave or parents leave without the usual notice periods, working off TOIL built up, allowing employees to work back up time at a later date, altering shift patterns, etc. may be considered to alleviate the challenges here.
Equally, staff with elderly parents or grandparents or with loved ones with illnesses, may have extra pressures placed on them, and some consideration should be given to this also in terms of how to help alleviate those pressures.
The organisation may also consider using Force Majeure leave to support an employee to provide urgent care for an immediate family member. The new special Illness Benefit measures announced by the government, call on employers to facilitate employees to take the full 5 days of their force majeure in one block in the exceptional circumstances of the Coronavirus. Force majeure is normally limited to a maximum of 3 days in 12 months or 5 days in a 36 month period.
11. Q. What happens if staff are absent due to Coronavirus and we are down staff?
The business needs to plan as best as possible for increased absences and have some contingency measures in place in so far as possible. The above rules/guidelines in terms of sick pay applies. Where staff are ‘absent on sick leave, the normal principles apply regarding notification of sick absence, the provision of sick certs, etc. for staff.
12. Q. What should I do about staff travelling abroad?
You should review the Department of Foreign Affairs and HSE websites for advice and guidance on travel abroad.
In the main, at this stage, the employer should seek to minimise, reduce or where possible eliminate travel abroad to the over 100 affected countries to seek to reduce risks, but this is entirely business dependent and based on business case assessment.
13. Q. What happens if staff go abroad on their own accord e.g. for annual leave to visit relatives or friends?
The employer has an obligation to look after the health and welfare of their staff and the return of a staff member from an affected area poses a risk to their colleagues. Advice and guidance from the HSE website and hotline should be sought.
We hope that the above FAQ has been helpful. It is obviously a quickly evolving situation day-by-day, so it is essential to update policies and practices day-to-day for the next while to cope with this challenging situation for staff and the business.