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Coronavirus: five action points for employers

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The Coronavirus and its latest developments present a number of questions for HR. Although we do not know the extent to which the Coronavirus will lead, we believe it wise for employers to plan ahead in order to ensure normal business operations.

Reason why we have listed hereunder some immediate action points for employers.

Action 1: Employers are responsible for the well-being of their employees at the workplace. Therefore, you should put in place enough safeguards to mitigate the risk of contamination, for example

  • You should inform staff and raise awareness:
    • Post instructions with links to guidelines from public health services and authorities (f.i. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/getting-workplace-ready-for-covid-19.pdf);
    • Give guidance on what to do when employees think they might have caught the virus;
    • Remind employees of their right to visit the company doctor; etc.
    • You should provide a safe working environment:
      • Ensure sufficient access to disinfecting soap and hand rub dispensers,
      • Keep offices and IT-devices (such as computer keyboard) extra clean, …
    • You should perform risk assessments and implement preventive measures, taking into account specific categories of employees (f.i. pregnant employees) or specific exposure of risks (f.i. higher risk for employees working in the health sector or businesses with premises in affected regions).

We recommend liaising with your internal and external providers for prevention and protection at work and consult with the health and safety committee to discuss the company’s policies.  

Action 2: Employers will have to think about appropriate measures for employees returning home after spending time in a country or region where a Coronavirus issue has occurred.

(a) Employees that are infected must of course self-isolate and remain at home. They are on sick leave. You should pay normal salary during the first month of incapacity.

(b) More complicated is what to do with employees that are not infected.

As a first rule, employers cannot ask employees for a medical certificate that prove that they are not infected.  

Of course, employer and employee can mutually agree to work remotely (from home) for a certain time (f.i. 14 days, being the time of incubation) or to take up (un)paid vacation days. We advise to draft or review your remote work policy in this respect.

Whether an employer can unilaterally oblige an employee to self-isolate and work from home can be discussed from a legal point of view. Employees could potentially claim compensation for constructive dismissal.

Hence, employers who believe that the quarantine measure is required from a business operations aspect should not take such decision light-hearted. We advise companies to assess in what situations they can reasonably argue that such decision is a necessary and exceptional measure of risk mitigation as part of health and safety obligations. This assessment will be different for every company, depending on specific elements (f.i. number of employees having travelled or travelling to an affected region), and should continuously be monitored taking into account how the Coronavirus will develop in the following weeks.

Action 3: Employers should be prepared in case of a lock down declared by the Belgian authorities.

This lockdown will qualify as a case of force majeure justifying the suspension of the employees’ employment contract. Employers should in that case not pay any salary. In certain cases and insofar certain conditions are complied with, employees could be entitled to temporary unemployment allowances from the National Employment Office. This will have to be analyzed case by case.

Action 4: Reconsider international travelling policies: cancel all travelling to affected areas for which the Belgian public authorities have given negative travel advice and limit travel to what is strictly necessary. In case of travelling, it is wise to check with your insurer if employees remain sufficiently covered. 

Action 5: Do not overreact, but prepare a sound business contingency action plan and think about how your business will continue to operate in case of a large number of absent employees or in case of a complete lockdown (f.i. remote work from home; reorganize working time of remaining workforce). Inform and consult with your works council in case you plan to implement structural measures with an impact on the working conditions of the staff.

The lockdown will not qualify as force majeure justifying the automatic termination of the employees’ contract. No specific lay-off procedures apply: employers, who take the decision to dismiss staff, will have to follow normal (collective or individual) dismissal rules.

Lastly, closely follow up day-by-day guidelines of the Belgian public authorities and if necessary, adapt your action plan accordingly.

Our dedicated Lydian team is ready to assist you with any questions you might have regarding the impact of the Coronavirus on your daily business.

You can contact us with all your questions on corona@lydian.be.