• Laura Childs

Coronavirus Free Toolkit

We published our coronavirus Toolkit on the Portal in early March and made it freely available to all organisations who create an HR Portal account, including the free Portal GO option. It is a comprehensive guide and includes compliant letters and briefings to send to staff through the portal's document manager so you can easily keep an audit for HMRC in case your business is investigated in respect of furlough payments at a later date.


The toolkit is updated several times a week. Here is an excerpt:


The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

On 20 March 2020 the chancellor announced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Under the scheme, any employer (including charitable and non-profit organisations) can obtain a grant to cover 80% of the salary of employees who would otherwise have been laid off, up to a total of £2,500 a month for each retained employee. The scheme will cover the cost of wages backdated to 1 March 2020, and will be open initially for at least three months unless the chancellor extends it.

Employers will be able to contact HMRC for a grant to cover most of the wages of people who are not working but are furloughed and kept on payroll, rather than being laid off.

Employers can top up salaries further beyond the 80% if they choose to, although they don’t have to. The support for businesses page states that the scheme is “subject to existing employment law”, and may be “subject to negotiation”. This is a reminder to employers that, where the employee is on a fixed salary, it will not simply be a case of the employer informing them that they are now furloughed and are only entitled to 80%. They will either need to top up the salary, or negotiate a reduction.

The statement referred repeatedly to "workers". However, the government's COVID-19 support for business page https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-employers-and-businesses-about-covid-19/covid-19-support-for-businesses#support-for-businesses-through-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme page refers only to "employees", and the Chancellor clarified in a Q&A session after his speech that the scheme would be limited to those on PAYE.

To obtain the grants, the employer will have to:

· Designate affected employees as "furloughed" and notify them of the change. Note this involves a change to terms and conditions and should be managed as such to avoid breach of employment laws.

· Submit information to HMRC about furloughed employees and their earnings, through a new online portal.


Homeworking guidance

Acas has published new guidance on working from home https://www.acas.org.uk/working-from-home in response to the increasing numbers of workers being asked to work from home to limit the spread of coronavirus. It covers issues such as health and safety, mental and physical health, equipment and technology, setting expectations, working from home and childcare and expenses.

Gender pay gap reporting

The Government Equalities Office and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have suspended enforcement of the gender pay gap deadlines for the 2019-20 reporting year due to coronavirus.

The Coronavirus Bill 2019-21

The Coronavirus Bill 2019-21 was published on 19 March 2020 and had its first reading in the House of Commons.

From an employment perspective it contains the following measures:

Emergency volunteer leave

The Bill sets out a new statutory right for workers to take emergency volunteer leave in blocks of two, three or four weeks.

This right will be available to workers who have been certified by an appropriate authority (a local authority, the NHS Commissioning Board or the Department of Health) to act as an emergency volunteer in health or social care, to alleviate the pressure on these essential services.

To take the leave, workers will need to give their employer three working days' notice and produce the certificate confirming that they have been approved as an emergency volunteer.

Workers can take one period of leave in each "volunteering period". Initially there will be one 16-week volunteering period beginning on the day the legislation comes into force, but subsequent volunteering periods can be set by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

There is no provision for employers to refuse leave, for example because of operational need.

The following workers will be exempt from the entitlement to take emergency volunteering leave:

· Workers employed or engaged by businesses with fewer than ten staff.

· Crown employees.

· Parliamentary staff as defined in sections 194 and 195 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA 1996) and employees of the devolved assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

· Employees in police service, within the meaning of section 200(2) of the ERA 1996.

· Other employees defined in subsequent regulations.

The right will be to statutory unpaid leave, but a UK-wide compensation fund will be established to compensate volunteers for loss of earnings, travel and subsistence. Workers who have been approved and who have acted as emergency volunteers in health or social care will be able to claim such compensation provided that they meet any conditions set down by the Secretary of State. Loss of earnings will only be available where a volunteer has actually suffered a loss of earnings due to volunteering. Further details concerning the arrangements for claiming compensation and the conditions attached are to be published by the Secretary of State.

It is not yet clear whether the compensation offered by the government will replace volunteers' full pay or whether it will be subject to a cap.

During volunteering leave, workers will remain entitled to the benefit of all of the terms and conditions of employment which would have applied if they had not been absent, and they will be bound by any obligations arising under those terms and conditions, except for terms and conditions relating to remuneration. There will be a statutory right to return to the job in which they were employed before the absence, on terms and conditions no less favourable than those which would have applied if the employee had not been absent.

There will be an implied emergency volunteering rule to any workplace pension or benefit scheme, the effect of which is to treat time when a worker is on emergency volunteering leave in the same way as time when they are not on such leave so the period of absence will be deemed not to have any effect on the worker's pension or benefit entitlements.

Workers will be protected from detriment on the grounds that they sought to take, or made use of the benefits of, emergency volunteering leave, or that the employer believed that the worker was likely to take emergency volunteering leave. Automatic unfair dismissal protection will also be extended to cover employees dismissed for taking or seeking to take emergency volunteering leave (or where the employer believed that the employee was likely to take emergency volunteering leave).

Healthcare professionals and social workers

The Bill allows health regulators in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to register, on an emergency basis, suitable individuals as nurses and other healthcare professionals (such as retired healthcare professionals and medical students).

Certain changes will be made to NHS pensions to allow skilled and experienced staff who have recently retired from the NHS to return to work.

SSP

The Bill will allow the temporary suspension of the requirement for waiting days, which ordinarily means that SSP is not payable for the first three days of sickness absence.

The government has announced that this change to SSP eligibility will apply retrospectively from 13 March 2020.

The Bill provides for regulations to be made allowing employers to reclaim payments of SSP made in respect of incapacity for work related to coronavirus. The government has previously announced that this will relate to the first 14 days of sickness absence.

The Bill provides that the regulations may make provision about whether an employee is deemed to be incapable for work due to coronavirus by reference to guidance or any other document published by Public Health England or the equivalent bodies in Wales and Scotland.

Use of video and audio links in courts and tribunals

The Bill contains provisions on public participation in proceedings conducted by video and audio, which apply to civil, criminal and family proceedings.

The Presidents of the Employment Tribunals in England and Wales and in Scotland have directed that, from Monday 23 March 2020, all in-person hearings (hearings where the parties are expected to be in attendance at a tribunal hearing centre) will be converted to a case management hearing by telephone or other electronic means.

Subject to some exceptions, the Bill will remain in force for a period of two years. However, there is provision for this period to be extended or shortened in relation to most of the Bill's provisions.

Isolation notes

The government has launched an online “isolation notes” service to enable employees to obtain evidence of coronavirus related absences from work.

Employees unable to work for more than seven days because of coronavirus will be able to obtain an isolation note.

The notes will provide employees with evidence for their employers that they have been advised to self-isolate due to coronavirus and cannot work, either because they have symptoms themselves or because they live with someone who has symptoms.

Employees can self-certify for the first seven days of sickness absence. After this time, an isolation note will now be satisfactory evidence of inability to work, where an employee is self-isolating.

The notes can be obtained through the NHS website, NHS 111 online or the NHS App. After answering a number of questions, an isolation note will be emailed to the individual user of the service. If the individual does not have an email address, they can have the note sent to a family member or friend. Alternatively, the isolation note can be sent directly to the individual's employer. The service can also be used to generate an isolation note on behalf of someone else.

ID checking

The Disclosure and Barring Service has announced temporary changes to its ID checking guidelines as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

For an unspecified temporary period, the ID checking guidelines will allow:

· ID documents to be viewed over video link, rather than an ID checker having to be in physical possession of the documents.

· Scanned images of ID documents to be used in advance of a DBS check being submitted.

Applicants will be required to present original versions of their ID documents when they first attend their employment or volunteering role.

Data protection

The Information Commissioner’s Office has published guidance to ease concerns about data protection compliance during the coronavirus outbreak.

In a blog post https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/news-and-events/news-and-blogs/2020/03/covid-19-general-data-protection-advice-for-data-controllers/ it reminds organisations that it is here to help them and that they should adopt a proportionate approach to their data protection practices during the coronavirus outbreak.

Organisations with concerns about maintaining their data protection practices to meet GDPR requirements are offered assurance by the ICO that it understands the challenges they face with allocating resources. The ICO will not penalise organisations in circumstances where they need to prioritise other areas or adapt their usual approach to compliance during this difficult period.

The ICO addressed other common areas of concern by:

· Reminding organisations that data protection and electronic communication laws do not stop the government, the NHS or any other health professionals from sending public health messages to people, either by phone, text or email, as these messages are not direct marketing.

· Clarifying that data protection concerns should not be a barrier to an increased need for homeworking during the pandemic, but organisations should consider having the same security measures for contingency planning homeworking as they would usually adopt for all homeworkers.

· Confirming that organisations should keep staff informed about cases of coronavirus in their workplace, for health and safety as well as a duty of care purpose. The ICO reminds organisations to avoid naming individuals and not to provide more information than is necessary.

· Stating that organisations will not be prevented by data protection law from sharing employees' health information with authorities for public health purposes.

Coronavirus and wellbeing

Mental health charity, Mind, has published information on coronavirus and wellbeing https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/coronavirus-and-your-wellbeing/ .

It is aimed at helping people who might be worried about coronavirus and how it could affect their life including being asked to stay at home or avoid people.

It suggests lots of things that people can try that could help their wellbeing and coping strategies.

Please check for updates in the Coronavirus Toolkit.

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