Do your contracts and policies stand up to the COVID-19 test?

Written by Amy Cooper of Ius Laboris UK firm Lewis Silkin

 

The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown have stress-tested employment contracts and policies, with some showing signs of strain. What should you do now to make sure your employment documentation is ready for the post-Covid future?

 

A host of new issues for employers has arisen out of the pandemic, from health and safety concerns, to handling furlough and unanticipated homeworking. Employment contracts and policies were not drafted with the current situation in mind, yet restrictions on how people live, and work could continue until a vaccine or effective treatment is found, possibly for years. And it seems likely that, as we gradually emerge from the shadow of coronavirus, it will be into a different world of work where home and flexible working is standard.

Furlough and changes to hours and salaries

In March, the UK government intervened to protect millions of jobs with its Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, encouraging employers to furlough their staff rather than make redundancies. But most employers did not have any contractual right to ‘furlough’ or lay off staff. The concept of furlough leave was completely new and lay-off clauses in employment contracts are unusual, as are flexibility clauses that might allow an employer to reduce employees’ salaries or hours.

As a result, many employers have had to seek explicit agreement from employees to vary their terms where furloughing or changes to hours or salaries have been necessary to avoid redundancies.

These concerns need to be managed in the short term, but they may also become longer-term issues for those employees who opt to work from home for the foreseeable future.

Working from home

For those businesses that unexpectedly had to ask employees to work from home, there have been numerous other concerns. These include the health and safety of employees working in their homes, over which employers have little oversight and control.

 

Also problematic is the protection of personal data where employees are more likely to be using personal devices for work or work devices for personal reasons. And another issue is information security and confidentiality. This is more difficult to manage where employees are hosting calls and meetings at home with family members or housemates in earshot, or they do not remember to lock away any devices and documents.

 

Finally, grievances, disciplinaries and performance management problems may still need to be dealt with, albeit remotely. Most employers’ policies did not envisage or provide for this eventuality.

 

These concerns need to be managed in the short term, but they may also become longer-term issues for those employees who opt to work from home for the foreseeable future. Employment contracts should be updated as necessary, and certain terms such as place of work may need to be renegotiated.

 

Some employers may also wish to reconsider salaries. For example, some employees are paid a premium to work in central London: it may be decided that such high salaries are not justified if they do not need to live in London or spend thousands of pounds commuting. Conversely, if employees work from home, they may wish to be provided with home office equipment and possibly recover other expenses.

 

The workplace

Some work cannot be done from home and employees, such as those who work in factories, supermarkets or on building sites, have in many cases continued going to the workplace throughout lockdown. These employers have different problems, such as implementing new health and safety measures in the workplace and ensuring employees abide by them. They may also have new data protection issues as they seek to collect more health data about employees, which might require new policies or changes to their privacy notice.

An increasing number of employers will face issues of this kind as they start to plan for the return of staff currently furloughed or working from home.

Some problems employers are facing will only require short term solutions, while others might need permanent changes to contracts and policies.

Sickness policies

Employers’ policies on sickness absence and sick pay are unlikely adequately to cover employees who are self-isolating in accordance with government guidance but not unwell. Although we hope that Covid-19 will not be with us forever, it would be good practice to amend sickness absence provisions to set out expectations for employees who are either suffering from the virus, shielding or otherwise self-isolating. Alternatively, a temporary policy could be introduced covering these matters.

What should employers do now?

Some problems employers are facing will only require short term solutions, while others might need permanent changes to contracts and policies. Bear in mind that we may see a second wave of coronavirus in the coming months which might result in another lockdown, or there could be local lockdowns or further requirements for vulnerable employees to shield. Employers should think about whether they need any of the following:

 

  • A temporary homeworking policy dealing specifically with health and safety, information security and data privacy, supervision and management, provision of homeworking equipment or how to expense any necessary items. If employers think employees may wish to work from home much more in future, they should start considering what sort of permanent homeworking policy they may require.
  • An updated health and safety policy or a return to work policy that considers relevant matters in the workplace (e.g. masks, 1m+ distancing, safety equipment, cleaning, shared spaces, one-way systems) and also how to manage employees’ commute so as to reduce risks. A return to work policy could also deal with data privacy issues and new conditions on processing health information.
  • Revision of disciplinary, grievance and performance management procedures to cater for remote working, for example, holding meetings by video conferencing, accompaniment, conduct of investigations.
  • A temporary change to sickness policies to deal with employees who are not sick but are self-isolating, quarantined after returning from abroad, or ‘shielding’ because they are clinically extremely vulnerable. Employers may want to pay employees sick pay in these circumstances even if they’re not ill, for example, to prevent those who may be ill from coming into the workplace and infecting others. They may also wish to amend policies to deal with any notification or evidential requirements.
  • Any changes to contracts of employment? Employers may wish to consider a range of new contractual provisions, such as including a right to lay off employees if work diminishes, or rights to alter working hours, the place of work, or to redeploy employees (e.g. to cover work if other employees are sick). If an employee’s place of work is changing permanently, the employer may want to renegotiate the contract.

Employers should also bear in mind that if their contracts and policies are regarded too unfavourably, employees may simply vote with their feet and choose to work elsewhere.

Employers should take advice on their specific situation before attempting to make changes to contracts and policies. This can be a troublesome area and, if not handled correctly, could lead to employees claiming constructive dismissal on the basis that the employer has committed a fundamental breach of the employment contract. And remember that, even where employees agree to changes, the employer is still constrained not to exercise its contractual rights unreasonably by the term of mutual trust and confidence that is implied into every contract of employment.

Employers should also bear in mind that if their contracts and policies are regarded too unfavourably, employees may simply vote with their feet and choose to work elsewhere. On the other hand, judicious changes to employment contracts of employment could give employers valuable flexibility to operate in the emerging, post-Covid world of work.

 

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