Coronavirus and COVID-19 - Employment Law Overview

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When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the government's directive was explicit: individuals capable of working from home were encouraged to do so. However, numerous essential workers, such as healthcare professionals, social care workers, employees in the travel sector, delivery drivers, and retail staff, did not have the option to work remotely. Let’s take a closer look at employment law and workers right during the pandemic.

Working through the pandemic

Your employer has a duty of care to keep you safe at work at all times. The specific public health guidance issued to employers in respect of the COVID-19 pandemic stated that employers must:

  • ensure availability of appropriate facilities for employees to clean their hands (with soap and water for more than 20 seconds or hand sanitiser gel) more frequently than normal;
  • provide facilities to ensure frequent cleansing and disinfecting of objects and surfaces that are touched regularly; and
    provide the necessary work arrangements to enable compliance with social distancing.

As well as the specific public health guidance in place during the pandemic, your employers also had duties under health and safety legislation including the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

Covid 19 Furlough and Redundancy

During the COVID-19 pandemic, furlough rights were determined by individual employers, allowing them to select employees for furlough based on their discretion, as long as there were no discriminatory practices involved. Employees who believed they should have been furloughed due to personal circumstances, such as vulnerable household members or childcare responsibilities, had the right to request furlough. Furlough entitled employees to 80% of their salary up to £2,500, with the option to take annual leave during this period. 

Lay-off and short-time clauses in employment contracts allowed employers to temporarily send employees home without pay if there was insufficient work. The furlough scheme, which underwent multiple extensions, concluded in September 2021. 

For detailed information and legal advice on furlough-related concerns, individuals could consult Thompsons' Employment Law team, covering topics like discrimination, safety at work, working conditions, and contracts during the furlough period.

Here at Thompsons, we can help you understand your rights during these unprecedented times and we have dedicated pages on Furlough and Redundancy.

PPE employee rights

During the COVID-19 pandemic, understanding your rights regarding personal protective equipment (PPE) is crucial. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 mandates employers to ensure a safe workplace, including providing suitable PPE to employees exposed to health and safety risks, such as COVID-19. While PPE is the last resort after other safety measures, it is essential when needed. The provided PPE must be appropriate, fit the wearer correctly, and effectively control the associated risks. Employers should have conducted new risk assessments considering COVID-19, identifying hazards, evaluating risks, and outlining steps to control them, including the provision of necessary PPE.

Workers are entitled to PPE without any cost, as it's an implied term of their employment contract. If an employer fails to provide adequate PPE, employees should engage their trade union representative, organise collectively, and notify the employer about the breach of their right to a safe workplace. Collective action strengthens the employees' position. Employers have an ongoing duty to safeguard their employees' health, safety, and welfare, and it's essential for workers to be aware of their rights and enforce them, ensuring long-term public health and individual well-being. If employees have concerns about inadequate protection during the pandemic or ongoing risks, they can seek assistance from Thompsons by calling 0800 0891 331.

Pay cuts and settlement agreements

During the pandemic, you may have felt pressured into making changes to your pay and working conditions. But, you shouldn't have had to agree to anything your employer suggested without fully understanding the ramifications and whether your rights were being infringed.

If your employer either asked you to take a pay cut or forced one upon you, it is important that you know your rights in this area. You did not have to take a pay cut, but many workers understood the problems for businesses and were prepared to work on a reduced salary to help themselves, and the company, stay afloat. However, any pay cut should only have been for a limited time and the terms of the changes should have been documented.

Some employers may have offered their employees settlement agreements. If your employer offers you a settlement agreement at any time, you should speak to an employment solicitor as soon as you can so that you make sure you get the best deal.

If you are concerned about your situation, Talk to Thompsons today and we can help you ensure your employment rights were, and still are, being upheld.

Refusing to attend work

Some workers, especially those with vulnerable members of the household or those who felt they needed to shield themselves because of underlying health issues such as diabetes or cancer treatments, may not have felt safe going out to a workplace. At the outset of the pandemic, lots of misinformation quickly circulated about employee rights and refusal to work, and how the law might protect workers who did not feel safe going to work.

Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1196 provides that an employee has the right not to be subject to detriment where he or she acts in circumstances of danger which is reasonably believed to be serious and imminent. If the employee has a genuine and reasonable belief that they cannot avert the danger, he or she is entitled to remove themselves from harm's way. However, s44 does not guarantee legal protection if an employee removes themselves from the workplace due to fears of COVID-19. The wording of the legislation is extremely precise and it is worth noting that when this provision was drawn up, Parliament did not have a pandemic like COVID-19 in mind.

Similarly, section 100 of the same Act states that an employee will be considered unfairly dismissed if he or she is fired for leaving the workplace in circumstances of danger which were reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and where the employee reasonably believed the danger could not be avoided.

S100 does not give an employee absolute rights to withdraw their labour if they feel the workplace is unsafe. Again the wording is far more precise than this and there is no guarantee that an Employment Tribunal would consider s100 applicable if an employee was dismissed for refusing to work due to fear of COVID-19.

If you are concerned about going to work or that your employer has not made your workplace safe, Talk to Thompsons today.

Protecting home workers

Your employer has the same health and safety responsibility to keep you safe if you are working at home as they do when you are in a designated workplace.

Employers must consider:

  • how they will keep in touch with remote workers
  • what work activity an employee will be doing and how long for
  • can the work activity be carried out safely at the employee's home
  • do control measures need to be put in place to protect them

Control measures for many home workers might be in ensuring they have the right equipment such as a suitable workstation set-up for using display screen equipment (DSE).

It is also important for employers to consider how to adequately support home workers when they have reduced contact with managers and colleagues.

Long Covid and your employment rights

Workers suffering from Long Covid are protected by existing laws which provide security in relation to illness-related absences, sick pay, and unfair dismissal.

To find out about making a claim for compensation if you are suffering from Long Covid and how your employment rights are protected, see our page on Long Covid – Your Rights.

Your employment law rights during the COVID-19 pandemic

The information above is a very brief overview of the situation. If you are in any way unsure of how your employment law rights have been affected due to the coronavirus crisis, please Talk to Thompsons, so we can help you make sure your employment and working conditions are not compromised unfairly.

Going back to work during Covid-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, going back to work involves understanding your rights regarding personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety measures. Employers are obligated to provide suitable PPE and implement various safety protocols. This includes measures like physical distancing, staggered work schedules, hand sanitizing facilities, cleaning supplies, and creating one-way traffic routes. 

Employers must assess risks comprehensively, ensuring the safety of all staff members. PPE is crucial, but it's not the sole solution; employers should employ multiple methods to safeguard employees from COVID-19, both in the workplace and for home workers. 

If you have concerns about your workplace's handling of COVID-19 safety measures, you have the right to seek information and support. Contact us at 0800 0891 331 or fill out our online claim form for assistance.


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