The A, B, and C…oronavirus

With the first three cases of Covid-19 arriving on Irish shores, employers must now consider the very real possibility that the effects of Covid-19 may cross the office threshold.

Employers must now assess how to balance the health and safety of its employees, with maintaining the businesses day to day operations, in light of the changing circumstances and impact of Covid-19 on daily life.

Employers should consider the following:

1. Have you educated your employees on Covid-19?

Given the widespread publication of the global spread of the coronavirus it may seem obvious that all individuals should take the necessary precautions to protect themselves from exposure to/or mitigate transmission of the coronavirus. However, an employer should not take it for granted that all employees are aware of the a’s, b’s and c’s of the Coronavirus.

Employers are encouraged from a health and safety perspective to remind employees of the following:

  • The symptoms: a cough, shortness of breath, breathing difficulties, or a high temperature, or a combination thereof;
  • Incubation period: it can take up to 14 days for symptoms of the coronavirus to show; and
  • How the virus is transmitted: the HSE and WHO have advised that Coronavirus is spread by sneezing and/or cough droplets. Therefore, it is transmitted via close contact with an infected person who is coughing or sneezing, or through touching unsterilized surfaces which have been touched by an infected person.

How can employers mitigate transmission risks in the office environment?

  • Circulate and update employees on information published by the HSE on Covid-19; and
  • Ensure that proper hand sanitisation systems are in place in the office (this can include alcohol hand rubs or updating employees on the correct handwashing procedures).

2. Is it necessary to introduce temporary business travel restrictions in your organisation?

Depending on the scale and type of your organisation, it may be necessary to introduce temporary business travel restrictions as a measure to mitigate the risks of exposure in your workforce to the coronavirus.

By way of guidance, the Department of Foreign Affairs has issued travel warnings in relation to the following countries/regions:

ChinaHong Kong
SingaporeIran
South KoreaJapan
The regional areas of Italy including:Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna or Piedmont

 

3. Can I restrict an employee’s personal travel due to the Coronavirus outbreak?

It is unlikely that an employer will be able to restrict an employee’s personal travel. However, if necessary, an employer could introduce temporary measures requesting employees to reconsider their travel plans to the areas listed above. Alternatively, an employer may request an employee to update them if they have travelled or intend to travel to a high risk or an affected area. If an employer does seek to restrict employees personal travel, their justification for doing so must be legitimate and on the basis that the health and safety of its wider workforce must be reasonably considered by the employer.

4. Can an employer request that an employee self-isolate, in circumstances where he/she has  travelled from an affected area or is in close personal contact with an individual who has travelled from an affected area?

As a preliminary point to note, due to data protection considerations, an employee is generally not obliged to disclose medical information to their employer without his/her consent.

In circumstances where an employee discloses to the organisation that they are required to self-isolate, an employer must consider the implications of this on the business and whether the employee can be facilitated to adopt a working from home arrangement.

A clear line of communication should be maintained between the employer and the employee to advise of their condition and whether he/she is required to go on sick leave or can remain self-isolating.

5. What if an employee is required to self-isolate, but does not have remote access to work from home? How does an employer address this issue?

It is a consideration for an employer whether, through contingency planning, remote access may be provided to all employees in an organisation in the case of the requirement to self-isolate.

In situations where it is not feasible to provide remote access to all employees, the employer must consider how this period of self-isolation is treated. For example, an employer may  consider treating this period of leave as force majeure leave, but must be mindful of potential issues around the equal treatment of employees.

6. Will an employer’s sick leave policy apply to an employee during self-isolation?

It is recommended that employers review the terms of their sick leave policy in order to determine whether it will apply to an asymptomatic employee who is self-isolating as a precautionary measure.  However, it is unlikely that the terms of a sick leave policy will apply unless an employee is symptomatic and is placed on sick leave.

7. Can an employee who is required to self-isolate be paid sick leave during this period?

If an employee is required to self-isolate consideration will need to be given to whether he/she can avail of paid sick leave, or if the company does not pay sick leave whether the company will continue to pay the employee base pay for the period of self-isolation. Ultimately this decision will rest with and will be determined at the discretion of the employer. However, where an employee is required by medical practitioners to self-isolate, he/she can apply for income support in the form of Illness Benefit based on social insurance contributions, to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

8. Can you place an employee on sick leave?

An employer owes a duty of care to employees to provide a safe working environment. It is recommended that an employer carry out a health and safety assessment on their work place, and where necessary establish protocols to deal with situations such as if an employee reports for work, but displays symptoms which mirror the symptoms of the coronavirus. It may also be necessary to request an employee to take paid leave in those circumstances, as an employer must also consider their obligations to all employees, including those who are considered “at risk” in their organisation.  For example, pregnant employees, employees returning from long term sick leave, employees with known medical conditions or those over the age of 65 would be considered “at risk” employees.  On this basis it may be justifiable to request that the employee self-isolates as a precautionary measure.

If you would like any further information on how to manage the coronavirus in your organisation or have any queries, you can contact Elaine O’Flynn eof@ofx.ie or one of team listed below:

Shane Crossan

Managing Partner

scr@ofx.ie

Judith Curtin

Partner

jc@ofx.ie

Sarah Coughlan

Senior Associate

sco@ofx.ie

Elaine O’Flynn

Associate

eof@ofx.ie