The outbreak of the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, in mainland China and its recent spread to Europe has raised concerns of an imminent threat of the arrival of the virus here.
This is a rapidly evolving and changing situation and employers should monitor press releases and advice from official sources such as the HSE, Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Health and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Many experts predict it is a case of when, not if it arrives and therefore employers should be proactive and prepare for a likely outbreak of the virus here.
Ireland has a comprehensive Public Health and Emergency Plan in place for responding to public health issues. The WHO recently declared that the COVID-19 outbreak meets the criteria for a Public Health Emergency of Concern. The current position in Ireland is that the country is in the containment phase. This means the focus is on identifying cases and their contacts as early as possible so as to prevent further transmission. There is no plan here yet to roll out enforced quarantines. Self-isolation for up to fourteen days is the recommended course of action for those with symptoms of the virus who have recently visited an affected area (such as mainland China or Northern Italy) or who have been in contact with an infected person.
Employers have an obligation under the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to provide a safe place of work for all employees. In order to comply with this duty, employers must take reasonable measures to identify and deal with any health and safety issues in the workplace.
What should employers do?
The first step for any business is to carry out a risk assessment. This assessment will vary for different businesses depending on size of the workforce, the nature of the working environment (whether foreign travel is common in the business) and whether any staff members are more vulnerable ie if they are immune compromised etc. The answers to these questions will influence the steps to take. An initial and sensible step is to put in place preventative and protective measures such as hand sanitisation measures and hand washing protocols.
A business with staff working overseas should assess whether they have worked over the last number of weeks/months in an area where there has been a confirmed case of the virus. If so, and if the employee is showing symptoms of the virus, they may need to implement a self-isolation policy and require the affected employee to stay at home for up to fourteen days. If an employee has a business trip scheduled to an affected area the prudent course of action would be to consider the HSE updates and whether alternative arrangements can be made. Employers should also ensure it has adequate travel and health insurance in place for travelling employees.
Staying at home
If an employee is asked to stay at home, then they should be paid accordingly. As it is a preventative measure and they may not be ill, they may be able to work remotely or if not set up to do this, work on paper based administrative tasks. Similarly, if an employer decides to close the business as a temporary and precautionary measure, it should continue to pay staff. However, if an employee of their own volition chooses to stay home, either to self-isolate or because of a fear of contracting the illness, then the employer is not legally obliged to pay them. Employers should try to allay fears and encourage return to work without having to invoke disciplinary action.
Whilst employers will primarily be guided by their obligations under health and safety legislation, they also need to ensure they do not fall foul of employment equality legislation by treating employees from affected areas less favourably than other members of the workforce by requiring employees of a particular nationality to stay out of the workforce. This would likely expose an employer to a claim for discrimination. Employers need to ensure that employees from affected areas are not subjected to adverse comments and remarks, purportedly humorous or otherwise, from other employees.
One practical step employers should consider, as the threat of an outbreak becomes more of a reality, is remote working and allowing employees work from home where possible to prevent contagion and in the interests of “social distancing” - a measure specifically referenced by the WHO. Obviously remote working may not be an option for all employees however, where possible, employers should try and facilitate it as an obvious containment measure.
The key points for employers are:
- Risk assessment –assess the possible impact of an outbreak and put in place preventative and protective measures such as hand sanitisation measures, hand washing protocols, distributing facemasks and consider remote working options.
- Keep up to date with developments from official sources - WHO and Department of Health - on latest guidelines.
- Communicate with staff – keep them appraised of any measures that are being implemented and the business rationale for same.
What is crucial is that employers need to be both proactive in implementing precautionary measures where there is a threat and reactive if a diagnosis is confirmed.