U.K. Adopts Temporary Employment Policies Driven by Pandemic

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin April 15, 2020
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

​The United Kingdom has rolled out significant policies to help both employers and their employees, whose jobs may be threatened by the coronavirus pandemic or who must adapt to new workplace circumstances.

The regulatory landscape has evolved quickly amid the growing outbreak.

"The world of employment law has been drastically changing, with several pieces of new and emergency legislation being drafted and implemented to help everybody and to prevent the risk of jobs being lost," said Tina Chander, head of employment law at Wright Hassall LLP in Leamington Spa, England.

On March 23, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced sweeping restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19. A wide range of businesses have had to shut down, with exceptions for grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants providing food for takeout and some other services, noted Laura Morrison, senior practice development lawyer specializing in employment matters for law firm Dentons, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Job Retention

Under the new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which will remain in effect for at least three months, U.K. employers will be able to keep furloughed staff on the payroll. The government will also reimburse employers for national insurance and automatic-enrollment pension contributions.

The plan is a key part of the measures Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced last month as the outbreak prompted school and workplace closures.

"For the first time in our history, the government is going to step in and help to pay people's wages," he said, noting that the job retention plan will cover wages backdated to March 1. The government aims to get grants in place before the end of April.

U.K. businesses, charities, staffing agencies and public agencies with employees may apply for the relief.

[SHRM Resource Spotlight: Coronavirus and COVID-19]

Statutory Sick Pay

Chander noted that as of March 13, U.K. employees who miss work for coronavirus-related reasons, including self-isolation, are entitled to statutory sick pay from the first day of absence, rather than from the usual fourth day.

Businesses with fewer than 250 employees are eligible to reclaim statutory-sick-pay costs from the government for the first 14 days an employee missed work for coronavirus-related reasons.

Child Care

"Alongside these new challenges, many employees are trying to juggle child care and/or home school alongside work," Morrison said. Employees are entitled to reasonable unpaid time off to care for a dependent because of an unexpected event, she added. "How long is reasonable will depend on the specific circumstances."

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, tasked with improving workplace relationships, has published guidance suggesting that it may be reasonable for employees to take two days of dependent leave, with additional time counted as holiday, according to Morrison.

"Flexibility is key. Consider whether the employee could work outside normal working hours to accommodate child care," she added.

Data Protection

Employers should be aware of data security risks that may arise when employees work at home, said Morrison, who noted that the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) released guidance on various coronavirus-related cybersecurity issues.

Employers need to consider the same data security measures for people working at home that they would employ in normal circumstances, when the workforce is largely at the workplace, the ICO said.

Time Off

Normally, U.K. law doesn't allow employees to carry forward annual leave, but the government recently said employees may carry over up to four weeks' annual leave for up to two years if they can't take time off because of the pandemic, Morrison noted.

If work is slow during the shutdown, employers may require employees to take some accrued annual holiday leave under the U.K.'s Working Time Regulations, she said.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 has introduced a different form of statutory unpaid leave: emergency volunteering leave (EVL). EVL allows employees who receive certification from relevant authorities to take up to four weeks in any 16-week volunteering period to support health and social services.

Employees will be entitled to their regular job benefits, other than pay, and may return to work on the same terms and conditions and receive protection against dismissal for taking the leave, according to U.K. employment law firms. Workers will be able to seek government compensation for lost pay and other costs.

Cutting Salaries and Jobs

Even with the job retention scheme, hard-hit employers might consider trimming salaries during the shutdown, which could involve negotiating with employees, Morrison noted. "If employees are not willing to agree to proposals, employers may need to consider dismissing and re-engaging staff on the new terms," she said.

An employer proposing dismissal of 20 or more employees must consult with employee representatives. Getting this wrong could result in a penalty amounting to 90 days' pay per employee, Morrison said.

Global Workforces

Employers with global workforces should be aware of policies that may apply to their employees overseas or to foreign workers in the U.K.

"The whole situation is moving very fast and changes almost daily," said Julia Onslow-Cole, a partner in immigration law firm Fragomen's London office. Among recent changes, she noted, U.K. businesses' foreign workers will be exempt from being classified as "overstaying" should their visas expire during the shutdown. "This will reprieve many employers from the concern of employing illegal workers under the circumstances," she added.

U.K. businesses with overseas workers should ensure that staff are complying with local regulations, not defying quarantine rules and monitoring travel regulations, Onslow-Cole said.

It's also likely the Brexit transition period will be extended again as civil servants deal with the coronavirus crisis, according to Onslow-Cole.

Gender Pay Gap Reporting

The government also has suspended requirements that companies report on their gender pay gaps for this year, in light of the pandemic. More than 4,000 employers published their data before the April 5 due date, Bloomberg reported.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Philadelphia.


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