The Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020 (the Act), signed by the President on Friday, March 6, provides $8.3 billion in much needed multi-year funds to battle the coronavirus public health crisis. While there are many important aspects of the Act, below we focus on the Act’s grants for construction, alteration, or renovation of non-federally owned facilities.
Coronavirus Supplemental Appropriations Act – Construction Grants for Non-Federally Owned Facilities
With six official cases of COVID-19 confirmed in the Republic of Ireland in recent days and the decision taken by schools to close where those diagnosed with the virus are students or family members, it appears to be only a matter of time before employers will face a similar dilemma regarding closure.
There is no advice from Government to close workplaces just yet but with the pace of contagion seemingly refusing to slow down employers must now consider what steps may need to be taken to protect their workforce and business in the face of such uncertainty.
Below we set out some practical steps that employers may need to consider when faced with potential workplace disruption.
Practical Steps for Employers
1. Carry out a Risk Assessment
Management would be well advised to undertake a full scale review of the risk that may present should COVID-19 spread further.
Depending on the industry, sector particular aspects of a business may be more affected than others. For example, a business that requires regular travel to affected regions to meet customers and suppliers or a business heavily reliant on staff being on-site, i.e. the retail or construction sectors.
The remainder of these practical steps below act as a guide through common areas of concern for employers.
2. Existing Policies and Procedures
A key step for employers is to review the existing policies and procedures which may apply in such a scenario. For example, relevant policies may include those regarding:-
- Absence from work;
- Pay whilst absent;
- Health and safety;
- Working from home; and
- Bullying and harassment.
If these policies are not adequate it would be prudent to issue a “COVID-19 Policy” which could capture the relevant sections of many of the above named policies in one document. It is important that any change to an existing policy is notified in advance to employees. Legal advice should also be sought in such circumstances.
Key questions for employers to address when reviewing existing policies in the context of a COVID-19 outbreak are:-
- Is an employee entitled to be paid for absence, for sickness or isolation?
- If an employee is not entitled to be paid, will such a fact encourage them to return to work when they may still be potentially carrying the virus?
- Does a leave policy require certification that the employee is fit to return to work? This could be problematic where employees are being advised not to attend a GP.
- Should an employer consider temporarily amending the leave or sickness policy due to the extreme circumstances? If so, notice to the employees is essential.
3. Sick Pay and Sickness Certification
There is no legal obligation to pay an employee in Ireland if they are on sick leave from work. Some employers do pay sick leave for defined periods and such benefits, if any, are set out in the employer’s policies or an employee’s contract of employment.
In terms of the rights of particular employees and pay:-
- People who are diagnosed with COVID-19: normal workplace arrangements in respect of sick-absence should apply. Employees diagnosed with COVID-19 can, as is the case of any other illness, apply for income support from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in the form of illness benefit based on social insurance contributions or supplementary welfare allowance based on a means test.
- People who are not diagnosed with COVID-19 but who self-isolate: if their employer ceases to pay their wages, such employees can apply for income support from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. A person who self-isolates in accordance with the up-to-date guidelines from the HSE but does not have a medical certificate from a medical practitioner, may apply for an income support in the form of supplementary welfare allowance.
- People who are requested to stay at home by their employer: Anyone who is not advised to self-isolate in accordance with the up-to-date guidelines of the HSE, but is requested to stay at home by their employer as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, should continue to be paid but in situations where the employer cannot continue to pay their wages employees can apply for income support in the form of a jobseeker payment or supplementary welfare allowance.
- People who need to take time off work to care for a person affected by COVID-19: employers can, and do, agree compassionate leave arrangements with staff who need to take short periods of time off to care for another person.
Certification of potentially infected employees is clearly a practical challenge, to both employers and employees, where employees are unable to attend their GP for a diagnosis.
If an employee is self-isolating the employer will need to trust that the employee is not abusing the instruction not to attend work. Any breach of this trust could be a disciplinary issue and should be set out as such in any COVID-19 Policy. Nevertheless, considering health and safety (discussed further below), it would be advisable that their employer take a conservative view here rather than rush any employee back to work where they are reporting symptoms.
If an employee is verified as having the virus, they should request a medical certificate from their doctor and supply these to HR until certified as “fit to return” by their GP.
4. Obligation to Provide a Safe Place of Work
In accordance with section 8 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 (as amended) an employer is obliged to provide a safe place of work for all employees. For this reason, it is essential that employers make sure any employee who suspects that they may have been exposed to COVID-19 is told not to report for work and self-isolate until the advised 14 day incubation period has safely expired without diagnosis of the virus.
If an employee refuses to self-isolate when recommended by the employer and the employer is concerned that such employee is a high risk person, it may be possible for the employer to suspend such an employee so that they do not report for work at a workplace but only in cases where the policies and procedures of the employer allow for such action. We strongly advise that legal advice is taken before any suspension is contemplated.
Employers should also circulate the following guidance to employees and facilitate such practices in the workplace:-
- Wash hands frequently;
- Use alcohol based hand sanitiser;
- Practice good respiratory hygiene;
- Maintain social distance; and
- Self-isolate if symptomatic (fever, cough, shortness of breath).
5. Discrimination, Equality and Bullying & Harassment
Employers should be very careful not to discriminate against employees who are from high risk regions or of a nationality that is strongly associated with the virus. Further, employers have an obligation to protect against bullying and harassment in the workplace which could arise in the context of such employees.
6. Working from Home
An employer may request multiple employees to work from home should they self-isolate or for other reasons for the benefit of reducing any contagion. If an employee starts to work from home but does not normally work from such a location, it is essential that an employer takes steps to protect the business, as follows:-
- Identify if any device that is to be used to work from home is safe from a cyber security and data protection point of view and complies with company policy;
- Perform a sweep of devices and install virus protection software or other security tools to protect previously unregistered devices on the company server;
- Train staff sufficiently in the use of devices at home and to be vigilant in terms of cyber and data security; and
- Remind staff of their confidentiality obligations particularly if working from a public location or on a public broadband or wifi.
The infrastructure required to enable all staff to work from home may not be readily available to every employer but businesses should at least enable “essential staff” (i.e. HR staff, accounts staff and management) to work from home in case of emergency.
In summary, employers must be vigilant to protect the spread of COVID-19 while balancing the need to continue their business. Should any employers have concerns about best practice and suitable action to protect staff and business continuity, including the drafting of a COVID-19 policy, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Video and Podcast: Employee Travel and the Coronavirus, NLRB’s Joint-Employment Rule, and DoorDash’s 5,000+ Individual Arbitrations
Following are the top stories featured in this week’s #WorkforceWednesday, from Employment Law This Week:
The hot topic on everyone’s mind at the moment (unless you’re in the US and then it’s pretty evenly split between politics and germs). I almost hate to join the fray and discuss it, but with so many events being cancelled, and travel restrictions being enacted, I wanted to add some suggestions for how to continue networking during this time, so that you don’t lose momentum on your relationship building efforts.
For some of us, travel and events still move forward. Travel guidance varies – it depends on your destination and the size of the gathering. Common sense and good hygiene are essential, and for our group, we’ll be instituting what we’re fondly referring to as “Operation Fist Bump” at our upcoming Annual Conference (which may be further downgraded to “Operation Wave Hello.”
Congress is working to advance a strong emergency funding supplemental package, estimated to be between $2.5 billion and $8.5 billion, to fully address the scale and seriousness of the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health crisis. Working against a timeline to pass a funding package prior to the March 13, 2020, Congressional recess, the supplemental funding for the coronavirus emergency will result in new government contracts, grants, GSA schedule awards, as well as contract modifications. Because of the public health crisis, the government may also issue letter contracts under FAR Part 16.603, et seq., which allows the government to immediately contract for services or supplies with contract definitization at a later date.
After the outbreak of Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia (COVID-19), government
departments, enterprises and institutions across the country have been
actively collecting information on the epidemic situation with a view to
maintaining the normal production order and economic order. On February 4,
the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission (“CAC”) issued the
Notice on Protecting Personal Information and Using Big Data to Support
Joint Prevention and Control (hereinafter referred to as the “Notice”),
which is intended to urge all local government departments and all
institutions and entities to collect and report personal information related
to the joint prevention and control of the epidemic situation in accordance
with the law, to safeguard personal information security, and to protect
personal privacy from any violation. In this special period, enterprises
must not only make an orderly labor arrangement despite the impact by the
epidemic, cooperate with the information reporting tasks, but also pay
attention to employees’ personal information and privacy protection. This
article aims to clarify the legal basis for collecting and reporting
employees’ personal information to government agencies during this epidemic
situation, and to further provide enterprises with some compliance tips on
how to properly respond to requests for employees’ information from
government departments and secure employees’ personal information and
privacy at the same time. Read more…