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Confusion over pay entitlements among both employers and employees if staff present with Covid-19

Businesses are being encouraged to develop contingency plans if a number of people from their workplace fall sick in the coming days and weeks.

THE NOVEL CORONAVIRUS has been spreading across Europe at a rapid pace over the past number of days, reaching new countries like Switzerland and Croatia following the first major European outbreak in Italy. 

While there has been no confirmed cases in the Republic of Ireland, there have been more than 90 suspected cases, with many worried that the arrival of the virus in Ireland is imminent.

Last night, the first case of the virus was confirmed in Northern Ireland involving a patient who travelled from Italy through Dublin Airport. 

Officials from the Department of Health and the HSE are meeting daily to keep tabs on the spread across Europe and reviewing the preparedness of the Irish healthcare system if cases are confirmed here. 

Their advice for anyone who has symptoms is to immediately self-isolate and to contact your GP – the impact of self-isolation, however, has caused concern for employers who might be concerned for their staff numbers. 

Equally, not all employees are entitled to sick leave if they have to self-isolate for the two-week period recommended by the HSE, leaving both employers and their staff worried about what will happen if Ireland experiences a similar outbreak of the virus as other European countries have. 

Employment and HR experts are warning there is an onus on employers to have a “contingency plan” in place if staff report symptoms of the virus in the coming days and weeks. 

“There is a problem for employers because they have been given very little guidance as to what they should do… and there is the issue for [employees] that a lot of employers don’t pay their employees sick leave,” Employment law specialist, Richard Grogan, of Richard Grogan and Associates said. 

“The SME sector is saying ‘I can’t afford to close my business and pay my people so if I have to close I’m not paying anybody’ so there is huge concern among that sector that there is no support for them.”

Grogan explained that if an employee self-isolates under the guidance of the HSE, employers are not obliged by law to pay their employees for their absence. / YouTube

If an employee presents with symptoms and their employer tells them to stay at home, then they should continue to be paid. 

In a more extreme scenario, where one employee presents with symptoms but is not sent home by their employer, there is an even greater risk to the employer’s business of personal injury claims if other employees subsequently fall ill, Grogan said. 

“I think there is going to be personal injury lawyers getting excited about this because if somebody says they have symptoms or think they have a mild version and the employer says to come into work anyway, and they then infect the rest of the workplace, then they’re opening themselves up.

“Employers are significantly at risk on this and there is some scare tactics going around about it. The second issue is that there’s extremely little practical advice being given to employers by the government.”

Pay entitlements 

Mary Connaughton, director of CIPD Ireland which represents HR professionals, said she has been inundated with queries from HR departments concerned about their staff’s pay entitlements. 

“They’re seeking advice around things like if an employee needs to stay home and isolate themselves should they get paid, or if you’re a parent and need to stay home with a sick child, is that force majure or is it paid leave. 

“Where at all feasible we advise companies to pay people as normal in these circumstances. We recognise not every business and small businesses in particular can’t do this, but if it’s a large or profitable business, they should.”

Her advice to companies is to sit down with staff members and outline a health and safety procedure including whether staff will be paid, part-paid, or asked to take annual leave in the event that they present with symptoms of the virus. 

“We don’t think most organisations are really prepared, so they need to sit down and do, let’s call it a contingency plan, about what to do if this happens. They could get a call tomorrow or Monday saying they won’t be in work and they need to have clarity around how decisions are made and who needs to be informed.”

At the beginning of February, multinational jobs company Indeed sent its staff home after fears rose that one of its staff members may have been exposed to the coronavirus due to a recent family member’s trip to Singapore. 

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