What should employers do in the event of a pandemic?

With the news that many businesses in Goa are taking precautionary measures against the new COVID-19 by encouraging workers to work from home, employers will think proactively about best practice in the event of a pandemic and what steps they will need to take now to ensure the health of their employees.

What are my responsibilities and duties as an employer in the coronavirus pandemic?

Health and safety responsibility While it is necessary to avoid unwanted absences, your primary obligation in the event of a pandemic is to protect the health and safety of your employees. It includes ensuring proper health, good communication and ensuring that your working methods do not pose undue risks to your workers.

A good sickness absence policy would allow you to treat any workers with symptoms of infectious disease. The regular rules on sick leave and pay should apply. The same applies to any worker who has been put under quarantine or who has not been permitted to return to the Goa, India

Right to impose home-work You may have an employee who has recently been on holiday in Northern Italy but is not showing symptoms of illness. But can you insist that they stay out of the office?

Some employers may have a direct, contractual right to allow workers to stay at home. However, even if this does not exist, it is unlikely that there will be a breach of duty to insist that the employee stays at home – provided, of course, that there are legitimate, non-discriminatory grounds for concern.

You can, however, deal with it sensitively and discreetly. Regardless of whether flexible work is feasible, if the employee is well off but is forced to stay away from the workplace, they will be paid their regular salary.

Right to impose office-work Your workers may be afraid of catching coronavirus, so they don’t want to come in. Will you demand that they do it? 

First of all, you should listen to the needs of your employees. There may be simple ways around this problem, for example by encouraging them to work from home or to drive during the rush hour to avoid peak hours.

You should also consider making plans for workers to take unpaid leave or holidays. 

If, despite a small risk, the workers unreasonably fail to attend work and can not be granted leave, consider taking disciplinary action.

Right to close the office if anyone with coronavirus comes to work, you don’t actually have to close the office. Local Health Department will contact you to carry out a risk assessment.

Nevertheless, if you want to close your office immediately for security purposes, make sure that arrangements are in place so that you can interact easily with your staff. When provided for in job contracts, you would also have to pay staff when the office is closed.

What move am I going to take now? 

  • Maintaining clean Basic hygiene is important. All at work should wash their hands thoroughly with hot water and soap and/or sanitizer and use disposable tissue to catch sneezes or coughs. Put up a sign or send email to remind workers of these basic rules.
  • Increase cleaning of the office – in particular phones, door handles, stairwells and lifts. 
  • Provide hand sanitizers and tissues to workers or ensure that they are held topped up in public areas. 
  • Employees may feel more comfortable wearing face masks, particularly if they work closely with the public, so consider providing masks to workers, if possible.

Keep informed 

  • Make sure you know how to detect coronavirus symptoms. See, for example, the WHO guidance here 
  • Stay up-to-date with government advice, especially in areas that are heavily infected, in order to prevent any non-essential business travel to coronavirus hotspots. 
  • Ensure that your remote work systems (if you have them) are available and ready if you need to use them on a wide scale.

Keep in touch

  • Communication is essential to this. Manage any ‘fear of the workplace’ by keeping workers aware of any steps you take to protect them and the possible level of danger. Anyone at greater risk (e.g. pregnant workers or those with weak immune systems) should be advised accordingly.
  • Employees will be made aware of how they will be approached if their boss wants to take precautions. This will allow all personnel and their emergency contacts to have up-to-date contact information.