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COVID-19 and employment law in the UK

The last couple of weeks have seen a raft of new legislation in the United Kingdom, hurriedly passed to deal urgently with the coronavirus situation. It has clearly been drafted quickly, with guidance that goes well beyond the legislation, and so this has led to some confusion as to what exactly the law now says.

There are four main areas of legislation that affect employment law. There is the requirement to work from home. In addition, there is a well-publicised scheme relating to furlough. There are also rules relating to statutory sick pay and to holidays.

The legislation just sets out the bare bones of the law. There are of course many other questions that people will have. Some of these questions are answered in the guidance published by the government both for employers and employees. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) website provides more detailed guidance. This guidance is regularly updated and can change as new questions arise.

Working from home
A restriction on movement, and therefore the need to work from home, is the law with which people are most familiar, and is expected to be updated every 21 days. Among the other restrictions that affect everyday life, the law says that someone can only travel for the purposes of work where it is not reasonably possible for that person to work from home. In addition to this, restrictions require the closure of restaurants and most shops and so this also affects a huge number of workers and employees who may be furloughed or even made redundant.

Furlough
It is possible that employers may end up furloughing up to a third of private sector workers. The legislation that allows the government to provide financial assistance to employers and employees is in section 75 of the Coronavirus Act 2020. The rest of the scheme is set out in guidance, and can be confusing.  The gov.uk website also has advice for employers and employees, and sets out the full legal scheme. The legislation is initially for three months. The scheme is open to all UK employers that had started  on or before 19 March 2020 and is backdated to 1 March 2020. The minimum period an employee can be put on furlough is three weeks. Employers can claim for 80% of furloughed employees’ usual monthly wage costs, up to £2,500 a month, plus the associated Employer National Insurance contributions and minimum automatic enrolment employer pension contributions on that wage. Employers can use this scheme anytime during this period.

Sick pay
A large number of people will not be ill from the virus, but will have to self-isolate because they have been in contact with someone who is sick. Someone who is an employee is generally entitled to sick pay if he earns at least the lower earnings limit (£118 per week until 5 April 2020, £120 from 6 April, with the amount of sick pay being £94.25 per week until 5 April, £95.85 thereafter). There is also a waiting period of three days for which this is not payable.

There have recently been several sets of Sick Pay regulations, and it can be difficult to work out what the situation is. Effectively, the new regulations state that if someone is unable to work because of a reason related to coronavirus, which means that either he is ill, self-isolating for seven days, or lives with someone who is ill and is self-isolating for 14 days, then sick pay is available. This is backdated to 13 March 2020. Online self-isolation notes are available from the NHS 111 website. In addition to this, the rule relating to waiting days is suspended if the person is off for a reason connected with coronavirus, and so the sick pay is payable immediately. There is no change to the lower earnings limit.

Holidays
The minimum amount of holiday that a worker has is 28 days. 20 days of this is minimum leave, and the other 8 days effectively cover bank holidays. In normal circumstances, this has to be taken by the end of the working year. There is new legislation which makes some changes to the 20 days, and says that if, from 27 March 2020, it is not reasonably practicable for a worker to take some or all of the leave that he was entitled to under the Working Time Regulations, and that this is because of the effects of the coronavirus (whether these effects are on the worker, the employer, the wider economy or society), then the untaken leave can be carried forward and taken in the following two leave years.

The legislation in this article is of course subject to change, and the government is under an obligation to review it.

Feature Image Credit: by veerasantinithi via Pixabay.

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