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Managing employees in the coronavirus crisis

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    Ray Newman

    Ray Newman UKBF Regular Staff Member

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    There’s little else to think about but Coronavirus this week as the nation enters an extended period of lockdown. For business owners – not to mention their employees – this is a volatile and worrying time. 

    Many businesses will be scrabbling to shore up their cashflow, and looking to ride out the situation in the longer term, but in the short term there’s all sorts of unfamiliar challenges to deal with, not least potential staff sickness, a raft of temporary measures around sickness pay and benefits, and the logistics of managing staff members – possibly including yourself – who may suddenly be working from home. 

    In the worst scenario you may be having to let staff go, and dealing with what that involves. All that, after you’ve panic-bought a really big padlock for the cupboard where you keep the office toilet paper, obviously. 

    If you hadn’t already implemented a working from home plan, you might now have very little choice, after the Prime Minister announced an enforced lockdown on Monday night, which only allows travel to work “where it is absolutely necessary, and cannot be done from home”.

    Normally, if a staff member were permanently setting up work from home, you’d have certain responsibilities like ensuring their workspace meets health and safety requirements. Some employers send someone out to check this sort of thing but in the circumstances no-one’s going to thank you for that, especially if the situation is temporary. However, if you’ve made adjustments at work for some sort of health and safety reason – like buying a different chair for someone with a bad back – it’s not unreasonable to expect they might want to take this home on loan along with their laptop. 

    On that note, you’ll be wanting a clear list of what company property your employees have taken with them, not just because you’ll want to check it back in, later, but also because pretty much the next thing you’ll be doing is checking with your insurance that your employees are still covered at home, and so is all your property. If your policy is unclear, it may be a good idea to try and contact your insurer for clarification, and if necessary amend your policy. 

    Once some employees are home to work, questions may start about what they can and cannot claim on expenses. For example if their residence is normally empty in the daytime, they may ask for expect a contribution towards the heating bill. If you’re looking for detailed guidance on this from HMRC you may be disappointed, but in general you need to ask one question: would the employee normally have this item – heating, printing, etc – paid for if they were working as normal in the office? This may vary from business to business. If you have four employees you may be happy to take it on a case by case basis, but if you have forty it’s probably better, in the interests of fairness, to make sure there’s a policy in place. 

    Unfortunately, in the circumstances you are also likely to be dealing with staff going off sick, as well as staff who have to self-isolate due to sickness in the household. Unusually, for purposes of Statutory Sick Pay, these will now be treated more or less as the same thing. Businesses with less than 250 employees can reclaim the cost of statutory sick pay through their payroll, and it’s currently kicking in day one rather than the usual day four. If you’re using an external payroll provider they should have their staff up to date on all the changes, but if you deal with pay in-house then you’ll find all the updated information here.

    Some businesses will also, sadly, have to let employees go. As the aid package put forward by the Government is intended to keep people in employment, there hasn’t been any change to make it easier to get rid of employees. So if the situation does arise, you need to follow all the normal processes and procedures including notice and redundancy payments. 

    You may even be taking on employees, not least that full-time security guard for the office toilet paper supplies. As things stand, there’s no change to the checks you might normally complete as part of the employment process. Due to the large number of industries cutting back, there are ready and willing temp employees available, but in terms of employment law, normal provisions apply. 

    Initiatives are also being rolled out to provide financial support to businesses, including loans, space to pay tax bills, and rate relief. Links to these can be found on the same government website. It’s a fast-changing situation and the Government may still add new measures, so it’s good to keep checking on a regular basis. These are stressful times for everybody: make sure you keep in touch.