How to handle the coronavirus outbreak
On Friday, March 27th, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced the latest government restriction in the fight against coronavirus, advising that everyone should stay at home until April 12th, 2020.
That is unless your business provides an essential service. If so, your employees are still permitted to travel to and from work. To find out more, read our blog.
The Irish government has made the move to support businesses and employers by introducing a temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme.
The Wage Subsidy Scheme aims to keep as many workers as possible in employment until the COVID-19 crisis is over.
The scheme also replaces the COVID-19 Pandemic Refund Scheme. If your business has already used this refund scheme, you’ll automatically be registered for the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme.
You may be thinking of allowing employees to work remotely. If so, it’s not just work processes that you need to ensure work effectively. You also need to ensure your employees will be happy and healthy while working from home.
For more information, read our remote working health & happiness blog.
The Irish government has announced new measures to combat the COVID-19 virus. These new measures will provide much-needed support to businesses and workers affected by the crisis.
The government announced significant new restrictions that will further reduce employment. It was also confirmed that the initial review date of 29th March has now been extended until April 19th.
From midnight, March 24th, the government specifically requires all theatres, clubs, gyms/leisure centres, markets, betting shops, marts, casinos, hairdressers, bingo halls, libraries and other similar outlets to shut.
All hotels must limit occupancy to essential non-social and non-tourist reasons, while all non-essential retail outlets must also close. All other retail outlets must implement distancing measures.
These restrictions will likely lead to further job losses. Only employees who can work from home and essential frontline staff in the retail and healthcare sectors remain assured of continued employment.
Financial supports for workers and wage subsidies
Noting the need to support workers during the crisis, the government announced substantial increases in social welfare benefits, including:
- The COVID Unemployment Payment rising to €350 a week.
- The COVID Illness Benefit for self-isolating employees increasing to €350 per week. This can be topped up by employers.
The government has also encouraged employers to keep staff on their payrolls to avoid mass redundancies.
Wage Subsidy Scheme
Under the wage subsidy scheme, the government will co-fund 70% of the cost of salaries up to a maximum of €38,000 a year.
Employers will only be eligible if they’ve suffered a 25% decline in turnover and are unable to cover their outgoings.
Despite this state intervention, it remains to seen whether the new measures will be enough to prevent widespread job losses.
School closure update
Minister for Education Joe McHugh confirmed that schools will remain closed after March 29th. He added that a further announcement would be made soon regarding the extension.
The Irish government is expected to announce a multi-billion euro income plan to support employees who have been laid-off as a result of the coronavirus crisis. This announcement should be made later in the week.
The Dáil has just passed emergency legislation to combat the COVID-19 crisis.
The Health Preservation and other Emergency Measures Bill contains two major changes.
The first confirms the income protection measures available to employees infected by COVID-19.
The financial measures include:
- An enhanced illness benefit of €305 per week for employees who require medical treatment.
- A fast access COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment designed to get thousands of unemployed people into payment as quickly as possible.
- A refund scheme under which employers can continue to pay workers at the jobseeker’s rate of €203 per week. These payments ill be fully refunded to employers through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said that he expects no “dramatic measures” be announced anytime soon in the fight against COVID-19. He added that coronavirus updates and advice should only be sought from government and HSE websites.
The Irish government has advised that all pubs close until March 29th. Businesses such as restaurants and cinemas can remain open but have been advised to put social distancing measures in place.
There is now also a temporary refund scheme for businesses who are forced to cease trading because of the coronavirus. This is available to employers and the self-employed, with employers being asked to pay €203 a week for a six week period.
Ireland’s Minister for Health Simon Harris has said more advice is being given to people returning from areas that have seen significant coronavirus outbreaks.
People returning from Spain and Italy are being asked to restrict their movements for the next two weeks. This includes not going to work, and to lessen their social interactions.
The Irish government has announced that schools, including all third-level institutions, are to close from 6pm on March 12th until March 29th.
Several other public places have also been ordered to close, including:
- Tourism site
Furthermore, gatherings of over 500 (outdoor) and 100 (indoor) have been cancelled.
There are steps you can take to ensure the health and safety of your employees, including:
People are understandably worried about the coronavirus. In addition to having a duty of care to protect your employees’ health & safety, you also need to consider their wellbeing. Remind employees of any wellbeing initiatives you have in place, for example, an Employee Assistance Programme.
In Ireland, the Department of Foreign Affairs is regularly updating its travel advice for all affected areas. They advise ‘to avoid all non-essential travel to and within China.’ If you have planned a business trip to China, consider alternatives e.g. postponement or meetings via Skype. If travel is a must, then you should effectively, but proportionately, manage the risk.
Remain vigilant to where your employees are and where they’re going. Give them clear instructions on hygiene. If an employee reports symptoms of the virus while they’re travelling, you will have to support them.
It’s also important to put plans in place for any China-based employees or those returning to Ireland.
Employees returning from affected areas
Employees returning from China should contact their local Department of Public Health for advice on measures that may need to be taken for 14 days following their return to Ireland. An employee may show symptoms of novel coronavirus, including cough, fever, and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing on arrival or at any time in the 14 days following their return. If this is the case, they should self-isolate immediately and phone their GP or emergency department rather than turning up in person.
Employees who have recently returned from China can expect to be prioritised by their local Department of Public Health. Non-symptomatic employees returning from places outside of the Hubei province can still attend work.
Still, if you have concerns (particularly if it’s known or suspected that the employee has had contact with someone known to have the virus), it might be wise to play it safe with a brief period of suspension on full pay on precautionary grounds.
Existing health conditions
Certain employees may be vulnerable due to pre-existing conditions. Included are those with existing respiratory conditions such as chronic lung disease, diabetes and cancer.
Pregnant or older employees may also be at greater risk.
Employees who have been advised to self-isolate
If an employee is instructed to stay away from work for 14 days, there’s no legal requirement to pay them. That is unless they report to you as sick during that time in which case normal sickness absence and pay procedures apply. However, you may choose to continue to pay employees, particularly if they were in an affected area on business.
If employees who fall into this category attempt to come to work, remind them of the medical instructions and tell them to go home for the stated period. Again, there would be no legal requirement to pay the employee because it’s not the employer advising the employee to stay off work, it’s necessary under official government advice.
Another option is to offer the employee the option of taking paid annual leave. This helps reduce the risk that the employee feels compelled to attend work which would put other employees at risk of catching the virus.
If organisations choose not to pay employees who have been advised to self-isolate, they must ensure that the approach is consistent and adheres to custom and practice. An inconsistent approach may lead to claims if one employee receives less favourable treatment than another.
Refusal to come into work due to concerns
If an employee has returned from an affected area or is worried about catching the virus and refuses to attend work, organisations should listen to their concerns and offer reassurance. An employer’s response to this will depend on the actual risk of catching the virus. It will also depend on the specific circumstances, including whether anyone in the workforce has already been diagnosed or another risk of exposure exists. Employers may decide to offer a period of paid annual leave or unpaid leave, or allow the employee to work from home where this is feasible. Responses should be proportionate to the specific situation.
Discrimination, bullying and harassment
Coronavirus is not a reason to treat employees differently because of their nationality. Still, instances of ‘banter’ and other types of harassment between employees might become more obvious.
Throughout it all, ensure your zero-tolerance stance to harassment is maintained.
The World Health Organisation’s standard infection control measures are:
- Frequently cleaning hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
- When coughing and sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue – throw the tissue away immediately and wash your hands.
- Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough.
- If you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, phone your GP (do not visit the GP surgery) and tell your GP if you have been in China in the last 14 days.
Need our help?
If you would like further complimentary advice on the coronavirus from an expert, our advisors are ready to take your call. Call us on 01 886 0350 or request a callback here.Back to the blog
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