knowledge | 4 March 2020 |

Coronavirus Update – What do Employers Need to Consider?

With the second confirmed case of the coronavirus (Covid-19) in Ireland and the temporary closure of a school, it is essential that employers consider what steps to take in their workplaces to deal with any further outbreaks or potential disruption to their businesses.  

What measures should employers take now?

Employers should continue to keep up to date with guidance issued by organisations such as the World Health Organisation and HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre, in relation to infection control precautions, and travel advice issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs, and to review their practices and procedures as required.  In addition, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has published a business continuity planning checklist of preparatory actions in responding to the coronavirus and the Workplace Relations Commission has issued a guidance note for employers and employees regarding Covid-19.

Employers have obligations under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 (the “Act”) to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees and to provide a safe place of work. Employers should consider the following:

  • carry out a risk assessment to understand the likelihood of employees contracting the virus, which will depend on factors such as the nature and size of the business;
  • be mindful of whether employees have recently travelled to or are intending to travel to any region where cases of the coronavirus have been positively identified;   
  • consider suspending employees’ business travel to any of the affected regions;
  • ensure that sanitation practices and standards in places of work are appropriate and adequate, and consider introducing additional preventative measures, such as increasing the supply of sanitation wipes and hand sanitiser at workstations;
  • provide information and training to employees on the prevention of, and limitation on, the spread of infectious diseases;
  • consider remote-working capabilities;
  • review relevant insurance policies (health and travel) and consider relevant cover issues; and
  • adhere to contracts of employment and company policies and procedures when dealing with employees who may have returned from an affected region, including China, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Iran, Japan and certain regions in Italy.   Where employers have concerns following an employee’s return from an affected region, an employer may require an employee to stay at home or work from home for an incubation period.

Employers should also be cognisant of potential discrimination issues that may arise, particularly on the grounds of disability and race.  This may include preventing bullying and/or harassment of employees who are of Chinese origin, and ensuring that management decisions, for example requiring certain employees to work from home, are not confined to employees of a particular ethnic background.

What should employers do where there is a suspected case of the virus?

Employers should give consideration to putting in place a contingency plan in the event that one of their employees falls ill and there are concerns they may have contracted the virus.   Employees should be informed of the procedure to be followed if they are concerned they may have been exposed to the virus, which would include notifying their employer of their concerns and ensuring they do not attend work.   Such employees should be directed to HSE guidance in respect of a suspected case of the coronavirus.  Current guidance provides that an employee should self-isolate and phone their GP or the emergency services and inform them of their symptoms and travel details.

Where employers learn of an employee’s potential exposure to the virus, or where an employee has recently returned from an affected region, employers should consider whether it would be prudent to request that the employee does not attend work for a specific period.  The current recommended incubation period is 14 days.  In certain instances, employers may wish to consider requiring all of their employees, or employees at specific locations (depending on the exposure risk), to work from home. In other situations, depending on the nature of the employer’s business and employees’ terms and conditions of employment, an employer may decide to place employees on a period of “layoff”.

Are employers required to offer paid leave?

Employees who are required to work remotely should continue to be paid their usual remuneration.  In the event that an employee falls ill with the coronavirus, the organisation’s sick leave policy will apply, which may or may not provide for company sick pay.  Where the nature of certain employees’ work is such that they cannot work remotely, specific advice should be sought in relation to payment of salary and other remuneration.  Employers should note that, in the absence of a contractual right, there is no statutory entitlement for an employee to be paid by their employer in the event that they are absent from work.  This may also extend to a situation where an employee is unable to attend work as a result of precautionary measures taken in line with guidance from statutory bodies, such as the HSE.

In the event that an employee is required to absent themselves from work due to a close family member falling ill or having a suspected case of the coronavirus, employers should consider whether a force majeure policy may apply or whether they request that employees take these days as annual leave. 

Where an employee is identified as suffering from the coronavirus, an employer should be mindful of the employee’s data protection and privacy rights in terms of disclosing their identity to the wider organisation, while remaining cognisant of the employer’s duty of care towards the health and safety of their workforce.

Action points

Employers should carry out a risk assessment and review their employees’ business travel history in addition to considering postponing or cancelling planned business trips.  Increased sanitation measures should be introduced in the workplace to reduce the risk of potentially spreading the virus.  The employer’s policies and procedures should be adhered to including sick leave policies. Employers should also consider whether remote working could be offered to employees to minimise any potential risks.

How can we help?

The Employment, Pensions and Incentives Group at McCann FitzGerald can assist organisations in developing its response strategy, drafting communications and policies and advising on specific risk situations arising.

Also contributed by Ellen Nolan

This briefing is for general guidance only and should not be regarded as a substitute for professional advice. Such advice should always be taken before acting on any of the matters discussed.

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