8 key considerations for creating a safe workplace with the easing of covid-19 restrictions

While many welcome the easing of pandemic restrictions, it’s not as simple as announcing that everyone must return to the office and it’s back to pre-pandemic ways of working. There are a number of important factors and considerations to work through to ensure that employers and employees alike are protected – both from a health and safety point of view as well as financially. This is especially important as many of the forms of government support have now come to an end.

Thanks to the input of employment law specialist, Keely Baigent who participated in a recent HRHuddle webinar, we share with you 8 key considerations for creating a safe workplace with the easing of covid-19 restrictions:

1. Policy

Whether it is updating an existing covid-19 and health and safety policy or implementing a new one, the important point is that companies should have a formal policy. Create a policy that covers all the critical aspects to include: sick leave and pay, covid-19 testing requirements, protocols around mask wearing, vaccinations and vulnerable employees, and requirements for social distancing or self-isolation and returning to the office. With the easing of restrictions, the government is essentially giving companies and individuals the responsibility for managing their safety. Having a policy in place creates clear guidelines which is important because while the pandemic may be waning, it’s certainly not over yet.

2. Sick Leave

The government withdrew the special rules relating to statutory sick pay and coronavirus with effect from 25 March 2022, as part of its Living with covid-19 strategy. With this change, companies need to reevaluate their sick pay policies with consideration as to whether they will pay or not pay employees if they are off sick with covid-19. The general consensus from scientists is that recent variants have a shorter period of 4 to 7 days during which individuals are contagious. However, people that are vulnerable may become more ill and be off work for a longer time period. Some companies have implemented policies of reduced sick pay for un-vaccinated individuals because they may require more recovery time. However, companies need to also be aware that individuals with auto-immune disorders or other vulnerabilities may have been advised against vaccination, and reducing their sick pay may be seen as being prejudiced.  It is important to think about what would be fair and reasonable.

3. Absence from work

Most companies have a threshold for the number of days an employee is absent from work before they start to implement an absence management procedure.  But the need to isolate if employees come in contact with someone with covid-19, had it themselves, or had to care for sick family members meant that standard policies couldn’t really be applied. Also, most employees were working from home. Currently, with employees returning to the office this can be a bit of a grey area that companies need to navigate carefully, especially with vulnerable employees.

4. Mandatory Testing

For some companies it might be the natural choice to insist employees get tested before returning to the office. But testing is no longer free, so who picks up the bill? And, when and where will testing take place? There are also legal considerations concerning how test results are communicated and ensuring there are no human rights or GDPR infringements. There seems to be a general expectation that if companies are going to mandate testing they need to be willing to foot the bill, and this needs to be clarified in the policy.

5. Self-Isolation

The topic of self-isolation relates to both risk and remuneration. If a company takes a stance that they’re no longer paying sick pay for Covid-19 related absences, then employees may go to work despite being ill so that they don’t lose out on pay. The problem is that is doing so they can put other employees at risk. Companies need to give careful consideration to the issue of self-isolation before issuing a fixed policy.

6. Health and Safety Rules

The challenges with creating an effective health and safety policy is that the rules relating to covid-19 keep changing as the pandemic progresses. As the government starts to wind down its regulations, they’re shifting the responsibility to employers and employees to maintain a working environment that is safe. It is worthwhile for companies to conduct risk assessments based on their specific circumstances and share those for commentary when formulating the policy.

7. Vaccinations

Vaccination remains a controversial topic and while it is not mandated by government, some companies are choosing to insist on a vaccination requirement for people returning to the office. If this is to become policy, companies need to consider if exceptions will be allowed and under what conditions. If exceptions aren’t allowed then there is also risk of discrimination against those not able to get vaccinated.

8. Place of work model

Many of these considerations need to be made within the context of whether a work from home or hybrid working arrangement forms part of the company policy. In some instances this may create easier solutions, but for some job functions, it may not be possible to work remotely. Companies must consider what is fair to all employees and engage with stakeholders to ensure employee concerns and needs are at least heard.

 

As the year progresses policies relating to the working environment will continue to evolve. Companies that wish to retain their employees as well as a safe and healthy working environment should be conscious of having regular conversations within all departments to understand any issues that may arise as well as possible solutions.

Should you require any assistance with your policies or legal guidance please contact Keeley Baigent at KsabLAW on keeley@ksablaw.co.uk (quote Vanilla Recruitment)

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