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With the likelihood of the return to office working this side of 2021 becoming an ever dwindling prospect for many workers in the UK, it is worth taking a look at the rights of employees that have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given that most people have been working from home since at least 24 March 2020, (yes, it has been that long!) there have been a lot of Zoom quizzes, TikTok dance tutorials and home baking boomerangs that have really taken the eye off the ball for many employers when it comes to the rights of their employees.

Prior to the lockdown, a lot of employees around the UK were working at their respective offices on a desktop computer or a laptop. As the average household in the UK is 0.008% of a football pitch (thank-you Google), not many employees may have had the space in their homes for the full desk set up they enjoyed in the office. Many people will have had to dig into their own pockets to purchase a desk or office chair to alleviate the back pain that can come from hours spent working on the couch. Given that most employers will not be willing to pay for that lovely mahogany desk or the leather chair with the speakers in the headrest - employees may have to agree with their employer beforehand on the equipment needed to work from home if they reasonably expect the employer to cover the cost.

As many employees have made the switch from office to home office in the last 5 months - consideration must be taken for the risks of injury that may occur around your home. Employers are required to carry out a risk assessment on your home workplace set-up. Consideration should be taken to ensure that you can work comfortably and employers should take steps to limit risk of injury occurring. Given the prospects of returning to the office has been pushed to 2021 for many employees, the home-working set-up for many is not a short-term solution. Employers may leave themselves open to claims of personal injury in the workplace if accidents occur whilst working at home.

For many parents and guardians in the UK, the biggest issue has been the covering of childcare. Many employees will have the right to take time off for dependents under their contracts of employment - however this is typically unpaid. With the end of the Government’s furlough scheme in sight, this may be putting further pressure on some parents and guardians to find suitable childcare cover without taking further unpaid leave. The return of schools and nurseries in Scotland over the last couple of weeks may have seen some well due respite for parents or guardians trying to juggle their own jobs, with the geography lessons for the children. Employers will need to be careful that they recognise the social background of their employees, and offer certain flexibilities to employees with children. This is so that they do not leave themselves open to attack from potential discrimination claims.

Many employees during lockdown have been lucky to claim back the lost hours of commuting to work - given that an 8:55am alarm clock can comfortably land you in the ‘office’ before 9am. Some employees may also be able to claim some tax relief when working from home to cover the cost of gas, electricity and business phone calls (not the weeknight takeaways unfortunately). Employees may be able to claim tax relief of £6 per week from their employer or through the HMRC to cover this increased cost of working from home.

When the time does arrive for employees to start filtering back into the workplace, or indeed for the many people in industries that have run throughout the pandemic without the possibility of home-working, there will likely be many people apprehensive about the return to work and their safety. There will also be employees who do not wish to return to work, and have fully embraced the working from home wardrobe. Employers will have to embrace flexible working arrangements of their employees where possible in the months and years to come. They will also have to consider relevant safeguarding of the workplace to allow employees to return without facing the risk of contracting coronavirus. Employees have the right to ask their employers questions about what safeguards have been put in place in an attempt to alleviate the risk of returning to work.

It is clear however, that when and if employees do return to their workplaces, we will have to return to a ‘new normal’.

Further information can be found on our Covid 19 Legal information hub.

Blog by Paul Ramsay, Solicitor

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