What are my employee rights during the coronavirus outbreak?

4 February 2021

If you are an employee and are concerned about how the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) could affect your employment, we've put together some guidance. In this article, we outline your rights in terms of health and safety, sick pay and leave.

What should employers be doing?

Employers should consider taking steps to protect the health and safety of their employees. These steps include:

  • keeping employees updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace
  • encouraging employees to work from home wherever possible and consulting with staff about their return to work
  • making sure all employees' contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date
  • making sure managers can recognise symptoms of Coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes (i.e. sickness reporting and sick pay) and procedures if someone in the workplace develops the virus
  • making sure there are clean places for employees to wash hands with hot water and soap, and encouraging everyone to wash their hands regularly
  • ensuring employees are advised to follow social distancing guidance, with particular care taken to protect those who are in a vulnerable group
  • providing hand sanitiser and tissues for employees, and encouraging them to use them
  • keeping in regular contact with employees and providing information regarding employee support services, as the pandemic is having a significant impact on mental health for some individuals
  • considering if any travel planned is essential

Employers should support staff in getting the Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine but they cannot force their employees to have one. Some employers may decide it is necessary for their staff to be vaccinated in order to do their job. For example, if staff travel to other countries and need vaccinations to do so.

If your employer does consider it necessary for employees to be vaccinated, they should listen to any concerns you have and agree this with you in writing. You should check your employer's policy on vaccinations if you are unsure whether this applies to you.

Will I receive sick pay if I become unwell?

If an you have Coronavirus (COVID-19) and/or Coronavirus symptoms, you will be eligible for statutory sick pay (SSP) from the first day of your absence from work (rather than the usual fourth). This amounts to £95.85 per week and is paid by the employer for up to 28 weeks. You should also check the sick pay scheme offered by your employer, as it might be more generous.

You will also be eligible for statutory sick pay (SSP) if you are following government advice to self-isolate due to: - Someone else in your household or support bubble having Coronavirus (COVID-19) or having symptoms - Being classed as clinically extremely vulnerable and therefore required to ‘shield’ - Advice from the ‘NHS Track and Trace’ service that you have come into contact with somebody with Coronavirus - Being advised by a doctor or healthcare professional to self isolate before going into hospital for surgery

If you have received a letter saying you are at very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus and telling you to shield, you can receive SSP for the period specified in the letter, not just for 28 weeks. You can also be paid SSP for more than one period of shielding if you get more than one letter.

You are not eligible for SSP if you are self-isolating after entering or returning to the UK and do not need to self-isolate for any other reason.

If you're not eligible to receive sick pay (which includes those earning less than an average of £118 per week) you may be eligible for Universal Credit and or contributory Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

As an employee, you should let your employer know as soon as possible if you're unable to go to work. Follow your employer's usual procedure for reporting sickness absence.

Self-employed workers will not be eligible for SSP. Please note, payment of SSP from day 1 rather than day 4 is a specific response to the COVID-19 outbreak, so is likely to lapse once the outbreak has settled.

Medical evidence is not required for the first 7 days of sickness absence. Even after 7 days, the Government are urging Employers to be flexible if they require evidence from the employee or worker. For example, you might not be able to provide a sick note (fit note) if you have been told to self-isolate, as you can't visit a GP surgery. Your employer should take this into account when requesting evidence. If your employer does require evidence, those with symptoms of Coronavirus can get a note from NHS online or from the NHS mobile phone app, and those who live with someone who has symptoms, can get an isolation note from the NHS website.

What if my employer tells me not to attend work?

If you're not sick but your employer informs you not to come to work, then you should still receive your usual pay. This could occur if your employer has concerns and tells you not to come into work for the safety of others. As this is your employer's decision, you should receive your usual pay for the time you are off work.

Some people will be required to self-isolate for 10 days by the Government depending on which country they have travelled from. In this instance, you are not entitled to SSP if you are self-isolating and you cannot work from home. Your employer can choose to pay you an amount equivalent to SSP or higher, but if they don't want to they can ask you to take your holiday entitlement or to take this period of absence unpaid.

Taking leave to care for dependants

You are entitled to a reasonable amount of time off work to help someone who depends on you (a 'dependant') in an unexpected event or emergency. The Coronavirus outbreak could give rise to a number of such situations, for example:

  • You might need to take time off to look after and make arrangements for the care of your child due to school closures
  • You might need to take time off to look after and make arrangements for the care of an elderly/sick family member if they become unwell or need to self-isolate

The amount of time off granted must be reasonable to deal with the emergency situation. An employer can choose to pay an employee for time off to look after dependants but they don't have to. An employee cannot take time off if they knew about the situation beforehand, unless they have agreed this with their employer. It is a good idea to record any agreement in writing.

If you have no possible alternative childcare arrangements, your employer may allow you (or in some cases require you) to use any holiday entitlement you have, and/or you could take unpaid parental leave. You could also ask your employer to temporarily place you on furlough, but they are not required to do so.

If you are in this situation and you're unsure of your rights, you should check your employer's policies in the first instance.

What happens if my workplace closes?

Where it's possible your employer may ask you to continue working from home, in which case you'll be entitled to be paid as usual.

If your employer doesn't have any work for you to do, then you are entitled to be paid as usual, unless your contract says otherwise. However your employer may have to consider closure and redundancies. Your employer should seek to warn and consult with you in the event they are contemplating redundancies. They must also take into account the option of the Furlough Scheme (see details below) as a way of avoiding the need for redundancies. Failure to do so could render any dismissal unfair.

Some employers have now been instructed to close by the government. Including cafes, pubs, restaurants, leisure centres, gyms, non-essential shops, cinemas and theatres.

Furloughed employees

If your employer cannot cover employee costs due to COVID-19, they may be able to access support to continue paying part of your wage to avoid redundancies, by using the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. This is an online portal scheme which allows employers to put you on furlough as long as you were employed on or before 30th October 2020, even if you were not on furlough beforehand.

The Scheme applies to employees, workers, agency workers, apprentices and those on zero-hour contracts, whether you work full-time or part-time. To be eligible, your employer must have made a PAYE Real Time Information (RTI) submission to HMRC between 20 March 2020 and 30 October 2020. Your employer must make the claim on your behalf.

Employers can place you on furlough temporarily, for example if you are shielding, if you have childcare responsibilities or if you are caring for a vulnerable person in your household. However, your employer is not required to do so in these circumstances.

Your employer will need to discuss with you becoming classified as a furloughed employee which would mean that you are kept on your employer's payroll, rather than being laid off. This is essentially a variation to the terms of your contract of employment which need to be agreed.

To qualify for this scheme, you cannot undertake work for them during the hours that you are classed as furloughed. During this time, your employer can claim a grant of up to 80% of your wage for all employment costs, up to a cap of £2,500 per month.

You will remain employed while furloughed. You will also continue to be entitled to accrue holiday entitlement. Your employer could choose to fund the differences between this payment and your salary, but does not have to.

If your salary is reduced as a result of these changes, you may be eligible for support through the welfare system, including Universal Credit (see Claiming Benefits below).

If you have recently left your job or been made redundant, employers also have the option to re-employ you and then place you on furlough.

The Government intends for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to run at least until 30th April 2021.

For further information on the furlough scheme, see our guide to furlough leave - what it is and how it works.

Claiming benefits

If you are on a low income and affected by the economic impacts of COVID-19, you may be entitled to benefits including Universal Credit.

From 6 April 2020 the Government increased the standard allowance in Universal Credit and the basic element in Working Tax Credit for 1 year. Both have increased by £20 per week on top of planned annual uprating. This applies to all new and existing Universal Credit claimants and to existing Working Tax Credit claimants.

Further information and resources

Public Health England (PHE)

PHE published guidance on COVID-19 for employers and businesses

ACAS

ACAS published advice for employers and employees

If you have any employment issues relating to COVID-19, it's important that you seek independent legal advice.

While this information is accurate at the time of publication, it is subject to change.