The COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak is causing major disruption across industries and geographies, leading global employers to review and adjust their business continuity plans and, for some sectors, to take measures aimed at the slowdown in activity (or its total suspension if ordered to do so by health authorities).
As an employer, you may find the following checklist useful when assessing your response to the crisis:
- Review your existing home-working policies, and make sure employees are reminded of the continued applicability of confidentiality policies when working outside of the company’s premises.
- Provide support for staff who are remote/home working over a long period of time:
- Remote/home working triggers potential new challenges, such as looking after mental health if an employee begins to suffer from ‘cabin fever’, providing additional equipment, and managing individual and team performance and discipline.
- You may also need to provide support to all employees (not just those working remotely) as everyone is at risk of being overwhelmed by bad news and rumour.
- Ensure you clearly differentiate between extended paid leave and home working (paid as well, but with an obligation on the employees to perform work).
- If you have roles that do not suit home working, consider other measures to limit the spread of the virus, including team segregation (in and out of the premises) and team rotation/shift arrangements to reduce contact between teams and limit the number of people on the premises at any given time.
- Consider what to do with planned business trips/group activities (e.g. conferences, off site).
- Determine whether employees have the right to refuse to travel to affected areas as, in some jurisdictions, employees have the right refuse to do unsafe work.
Returning to the office
- When encouraging/requesting employees’ return to your premises, consider those who need to take care of their children because of delayed day care or school re-opening.
- Make sure your recommendations and instructions comply with any quarantine or other health-related measures, including remote working if an employee was stranded in a foreign country.
- Check if you are under any local legal obligation to provide protective clothing and face masks to employees.
- Check if you can compel any employee suspected of being sick or having been in contact with infected people to undergo a medical examination before returning to work.
- Be aware that additional data protection issues may be triggered if authorities ask you to collect and share employees’ (and even their family’s) health status and travel history.
- Do not discriminate against employees who are infected or stereotype/encourage xenophobia by taking unnecessary measures, for instance by asking certain groups of employees to be examined, without any justified reason.
- Be careful when administering and following up on medical tests as an employee might claim that they are being discriminated against because of the results.
- Check for any local incentives in the fight against the coronavirus as some governments (e.g. China and Singapore last week) have announced financial support measures to businesses (and/or employees), e.g. tax and social security cuts, payment facilities, subsidies for no redundancies, etc.
- Check if your business insurance covers potential liability in case employees are infected at the workplace/during working time and they (or a third party) ask for compensation.
- Bear in mind that force majeure in employment relationships is often strictly regulated and does not work in the same way as in commercial contracts.
Managing employment costs
The outbreak is causing a significant slowdown in many sectors and employers may be in need to manage headcount costs.
Because of the many uncertainties, including around the depth and duration of the slowdown, and the need to protect the business and its talent in the long term, employers are likely to favour alternative measures to the classic redundancy.
Alternatives measures may include some or all of the following:
- Hiring freeze
- Withdrawing offers of employment to candidates
- Reducing agency/temporary work
- Cutting wages/salaries
- Delaying or freezing salary increases
- Freezing/stopping paid overtime
- Reducing non-cash benefits
- Suspending bonus plans
- Changing pension arrangements
- Changing the expense reimbursement policies
- Asking employees to work fewer hours
- Retraining/redeploying staff to unaffected or less affected areas of the business
- Offering employees sabbaticals or secondments
- Asking employees to take unpaid leave
- Sharing employees with other employers (see our other blog post)
Implementing any of the above measures will trigger legal issues which should be carefully considered.
Information and consultation requirements
- Consider the need to inform and possibly consult with employee representative bodies (such as works councils, trade unions, etc.) on some or all of the above measures – the law and best practice varies between jurisdictions.