COVID-19, or Coronavirus, was declared a Public Health Emergency in January 2020 by the World Health Organisation (WHO). To date, there has been no vaccination discovered. As coronavirus has the potential to be fatal, certain precautions must be put into place globally to try to contain its spread.
What is Coronavirus?
Coronavirus is an illness that affects lungs and airways, and spreads in much the same way as the flu virus, through coughing, sneezing and exhalation. If you come into close physical contact with someone who has coronavirus then you may be at risk. You may also be at risk if you touch a contaminated surface that has not been disinfected. However, as this is a new virus it is too early to say with certainty exactly how it is spread. Many who experience symptoms will make a full recovery, however it is important to note that those with an already weakened immune system may be at greater risk.
What are my responsibilities?
It is imperative that employers take necessary precautions to help stop the spread of this virus. The following guidelines should be noted.
1. Maintain a clean workspace.
Surface areas should be disinfected regularly. Computer equipment, such as keyboards, must be wiped to help prevent the spread of germs. Make sure that your employees have access to disinfectant wipes and sprays. Another important point to note is that employees may be using their personal phones in the workplace. You should strongly encourage employees to treat their personal phones in the same way as working equipment – by wiping down regularly. NB: Be very careful that the chosen sanitising spray is hypoallergenic and can be used in enclosed spaces. You don’t want to be responsible for allergic reactions!
2. Ensure hands are kept clean.
WHO states that washing kills the germs associated with COVID-19. Thoroughly cleaning hands and nails with soap and water at regular intervals throughout the day will help to contain this deadly virus. It is recommended that you wash hands for a total of 20 seconds. The Guardian has compiled a helpful list of songs you can sing at the top of your voice while doing so! Make sure that all employees have access to soap and water.
3. Overseas travel.
Employees must inform managers of any plans before they travel, even if not travelling to a high risk area. Any non-essential business travel should be kept to a minimum. As coronavirus symptoms take around 14 days to develop, you could be travelling to an affected area without knowing. Additionally, all employees must check travel advice for affected regions by accessing https://www.dfa.ie/travel/travel-advice/coronavirus/
4. Go online where possible.
As an employer, you have a duty of care for your employees. It may be wise to forego travelling to client sites and opting to complete meetings online instead. A number of key player in the collaborative communications space – Cisco, Microsoft and Google – are offering free online meeting tools in response to this outbreak. Read more here.
5. Quarantine rules.
If an employee has recently travelled to an affected area, or has been in close contact with another person, it may be considered wise of them to self-quarantine for 14 days, in a room with a phone so that they can call the doctor if they start displaying symptoms. If they already have symptoms, then they should be medically assessed as soon as possible. However, this has certain implications for employees and employers alike.
What are my legal obligations?
This is understandably a worry for a lot of employers. Where an employee must be quarantined, or indeed where an employee self-isolates, what are the rules regarding sickpay? Employees may have financial worries about needing to take 14 days leave without sick pay. However, employers may also have financial worries. So what is the correct course of action?
• If an employee is displaying symptoms of coronavirus. Employees who have been to a high risk area or have been in close contact with someone who has the virus and are displaying symptoms should stay at home from work and seek medical guidance immediately, via telephone or online. Usual sick pay rules apply, as stipulated in their employment contract.
• If an employee is considered at risk, but has not got any symptoms. Employees who have returned from a high-risk area or who have been in contact with someone who has the virus but are not displaying any symptoms may continue to attend work as normal, according to guidelines in place at the time of writing. If the employee with no symptoms decides to self isolate, then this must be agreed with management. Normal sick pay rules apply, so if there are no symptoms then there is no obligation for the employer to pay sick leave. However, alternative arrangements such as remote working or the taking of annual leave can be discussed at the employer’s discretion.
• Can I tell my employee to stay at home if they don’t have symptoms? You may wish to advise your at-risk employees to self quarantine. However, if you do this without making alternative arrangements, such as enabling them to work from home or offering them full pay, then you may be at risk of litigation. It is wise to have a two way dialogue with your employee before you take this route.
• Where an employee has a family emergency. If an employee has a family emergency (ie they need to care for someone close to them that has coronavirus) they may be entitled to Force Majeure leave. You can read further information here.
• GDPR. Remember that medical information falls under the category of personal information as dictated by the GDPR. If an employee has been diagnosed with coronavirus and you need to take precautionary measures, please remember that you should not disclose their identity to other employees. However, you may need to alert other employees to the case so that they can take precautionary measures.
Further Support and Guidance
The Workplace Relations Commission has issued advice to employers on handling this. You can access that here.
Employees may be able to access income supports depending on their circumstances. Find out more here.
As we discover more about this virus, employers are urged to remain up to date with advice from health authorities, to ensure they are at all times following the latest guidelines.
The recommendations and advice included in this article are not intended to replace the advice from a legal or medical counsel.