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Returning to work from furlough – what practicalities should employers consider?

The UK unemployment figure exceeded two million in April; the highest level on record. Almost daily, major businesses are filing for administration in what seems like unparalleled numbers.

The UK Government has implemented unprecedented, financial interventions since March in order to try to avoid a lasting, economic depression. What is clear is that there is no quick or easy fix, particularly given that a vaccine may take years. It may even be beyond our scientific and medical capability.

Even the combination of interest free loans, capital grants, deferred tax payments, suspension of business rates and salary grants are no substitute to a business’ ability to trade. The mental health of so many people in isolation is equally unsustainable for a prolonged period of time.

Re-opening the UK’s economy is critical, but getting this wrong means an exponentially worse set of circumstances. The focus of every employer must therefore be on the safety of their workers so that the spread and threat of the virus is controlled and managed effectively.

What is furlough?

  • The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme designed to ensure that businesses keep employees employed where they might otherwise have been dismissed due to a reduction in work caused by the pandemic and national restrictions on the economy and social mobility.
  • Government grants of up to 80% of employee salaries, capped at £2,500.00 per month, payable to employees through an employer’s payroll.

Can my workplace be open?

  • Certain sectors of the economy were mandated to close by the Government, such as the tourism and hospitality sectors. Others were the opposite, including supermarkets, health care and construction.
  • Most industry sectors were able to continue to operate where that work could continue safely, typically where work could be performed from home.[1]
  • The recommendations and Parliamentary advice for each devolved country of the UK is different. Depending upon where your business is based or operates, you may have to adapt to different guidance. This is also true of importing and exporting, or of businesses operating across different geographical jurisdictions.

 What are the safety recommendations?

  • Employers must think about who should be working, where they should be working and how they get to and from work.
  • Any employer must consider the risk to the health, safety and welfare of their workers to ensure that they can work safely before they are able to lawfully re-open, or remain open for business. This includes the thorough consideration of the advice from the relevant authorities in the context of their own workplace.
  • It sounds simple, but getting this risk assessment wrong can have criminal consequences, as well as civil claims. If you follow the guidance of the government[2], the HSE[3] and ACAS[4], you’ll be off to a good start, but not necessarily home and dry.
  • Adaptations to the workplace could include a change to working hours, working from a different location, implementation of different machinery or protocols or the use of hygiene regimes and enhanced personal protective equipment.

Can we just make these adaptations?

  • An employer should be alive to contractual commitments around working hours and places of work, which almost certainly require consultation in order to make changes to contractual terms and conditions;
  • Consultation is necessary with unions or employee elected representatives. The guidance differs in relation to whether this is mandatory, or simply good practice.
  • Training for new policies, procedures and equipment is almost certainly going to be necessary and anything which might increase risk to staff, customers or suppliers, such as reducing the number of people at work or asking people to work alone, may need to be carefully balanced against the threat posed by coronavirus.

What other practical points do I need to think about?

There are some people who should not be returning to work at this stage and an employers should think very carefully before making requirements of employees in certain categories. The Government guidance should again be considered and consultation should take place with unions, representatives or individuals themselves where appropriate.

Where in doubt, communicating with employees and seeking the right advice is critical if businesses are going to make reopening sustainable and successful.

For further information and advice, please contact Employment Law Partner Joe Nicholls on 0117 943 4820 or email joe.nicholls@wards.uk.com  

Where can I go for further information?

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/further-businesses-and-premises-to-close/further-businesses-and-premises-to-close-guidance#length-of-closure

[2] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19

[3] https://www.hse.gov.uk/news/assets/docs/working-safely-guide.pdf

[4] https://www.acas.org.uk/coronavirus

 

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