COVID-19: Employer HR Considerations

Our HR Solutions team have reviewed and addressed some of the concerns employers may have in relation to remote working. They have also looked at the measures and obligations that essential service employers will need to consider during this unprecedented period of COVID-19.

Terms and Conditions of Employment 

Employment law is a broad and complex area that governs the employer and employee relationship. There are a number of factors to consider under employment legislation with COVID-19, in particular, the Terms of Employment legislation and the Payment of Wages Act, 1991 and Part 8 of the recently enacted Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 makes amendments to the Redundancy Payments Acts 1967 to 2014 relating to lay-off and short time:

  • Where it becomes necessary to close a workplace, employers should request that employees work from home where feasible and continue to pay employees as normal. 
  • Failure to comply with contractual obligations to pay employees in circumstances where they are available for work may lead to breach of contract and/or payment of wages claims against an employer, unless the employer has provided for an unpaid period of lay-off in the employment contract. 
  • Employers may also wish to review employment terms in their contracts for emergency provisions situations or where the threat of a pandemic necessitates closure of a workplace. Where it is not possible for employees to work from home in the event that a workplace must be closed, other measures should be considered:
    • Lay-off/Short Term Work 
    • Redeployment 
    • Redundancy 
    • Annual Leave 
    • Maternity Leave 
    • Parents Leave 
    • Parental Leave 
    • Force Majeure

Employer Obligations – Health & Safety 

  • Employers have a duty of care towards employees and are required to take steps to comply with their obligations regarding workplace health and safety. 
  • Is your business on the list of essential service providers under the new public health guidelines, if so, have you:
    • Ensured the Health & Safety aspects for employees working in the office? 
      • Physical distancing, staggered breaks, rotation of back office and counter employees. 
      • An adequate risk assessment of the working environment completed. 
    • Identified key person dependency and splitting the management team so that normal operations can continue in a worst case scenario? 
    • Provided your employees with a letter stating this and the type of essential service that they work in, in case they are asked to produce this by the authorities such as An Garda Síochana/Military Police? 
    • Updated your current policies to reflect this COVID-19 crisis and communicated these to your employees? 
    • Considered extra health and safety measures? 
    • Re-assessed employees who may be vulnerable – risk assessments - consult with them and consider their responses?

Remote Working 

  • Review and update HR policies around remote working, use of conferencing facilities, maintaining appropriate member confidentiality and data protection and ensuring that there is appropriate communication with the office:
    • Email communications should be clear and concise focusing on important pieces of information that will keep employees up to date. 
    • Clear goals set for employees: 
      • Ensure that these are realistic, agreed and that expectations are set down. 
    • Maintain virtual check-ins with your employees in order to avoid a lack of connection with the workplace e.g. using a video conferencing tool at break times for your team or use these to have virtual huddles (make it fun!) 
    • On-line Diaries – so that your employees know when you are available if they wish to contact you (virtual open door!)

GDPR Obligations 

When you are working from home, it is not difficult to follow the principles set out by the General Data Protection Regulation and protect personal data. Treat the data you are processing as if it were your own personal data. Would you like to think your data was not secure or being read by an unauthorised person? Underpinning all of the principles is “accountability.”

Are all your employees working remotely aware of their GDPR obligations?

  • For work related emails use work email accounts, not personal ones. 
  • Comply with the procedures your organisation has for using and logging in to any cloud or network server. 
  • Securely store your devices when you are not using them. 
  • Dispose of files containing personal data correctly and according to your company policy. Never dispose of personal data files in your household waste. 
  • Don’t leave any files or work devices in your car. 
  • Never share your password. 
  • Remember to lift your devices when you are leaving a coffee shop, conference, train or bus. 
  • Lock your screen when you step away from your computer – even just to pop to the kitchen at home or grab a napkin in the coffee shop. 
  • When you are working hide your screen so others can’t see it.

COVID-19 State Entitlements 

  • COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme 

Please see discussion posted by our Tax Partner, Mairead O’Grady 

  • COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment 

This is a payment of €350 per week paid by the Department of Employment Affairs & Social Protection. It is available to employees and the self-employed who have lost their job on (or after) March 13 due to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic.

  • Illness Benefit for COVID-19 Illness 

This is a payment available to employees who are self-isolating on the instruction of a doctor or the HSE and/or have been diagnosed with COVID-19. This is a payment of €350 per week paid by the Department of Employment Affairs & Social Protection. It will be paid for a maximum of 2 weeks where a person is self-isolating and for a maximum of 10 weeks if a person has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

  • Short Time Work Support Payment 

Short Time Work Support is a form of Jobseeker's Benefit and is an income support payment if employees have been temporarily placed on a shorter working week. The rate of payment will depend on the individuals average weekly earnings in the governing contribution year and the change in their work pattern. For example, if the employee has been placed on a 3 day work pattern having previously worked 5 days they may be entitled to up €81.20 for the 2 days they are no longer working. This represents two fifths of the maximum weekly rate of Jobseeker's Benefit of €203.

Employee Morale and Well-being during Covid-19 

Ensure your employees are keeping well, safe and healthy during these strange days with an increase in remote working and government requests for individuals to social distance, cocoon, self-isolate, employee morale is rapidly declining.

By now, we are all learning to adjust to the new ‘normal’ of remote working, social distancing and updates on Covid-19 becoming part of our everyday lives. This can understandably cause a lot of concern and stress, and can impact on how we are feeling, thinking and behaving.

Many employees face new challenges and may find themselves overwhelmed with the change to their normal routine, which stems from a variety of factors including remote working, children being home and general uncertainty and worry.

We have set out some tips below for employers to boost employee morale and well-being during this difficult time.

  • Keep Employees Informed 

It is essential that employers keep in regular contact with their employees throughout this period of uncertainty. 

  • Promote Work-Life Balance 

Encourage employees to establish a new working routine, which should incorporate regular small breaks during the working day. If employees are used to a daily commute suggest that they use this time to get some exercise before starting their working day. Ensure that employees know that they are not expected to work additional hours and that they should switch-off once their working day is over. 

  • Ask for Feedback 

Asking for feedback on new working arrangements such as working from home, staggered shifts etc, also helps employees know that their thoughts are valued and when any issues are addressed as a result of feedback. 

  • Be Flexible and Empathetic 

Where the nature of the business allows for flexibility, employers should consider allowing employees to vary their working hours to suit their new arrangements.  Employers could also consider introducing set core hours that all employees must be available at but allow employees to work their additional hours at other times convenient for them.

  • Employee Assistance Programmes 

Employers should consider introducing an Employee Assistance Programme (“EAP”) which offers free and confidential supports to employees. EAPs are designed to help employees with a wide range of work, family and personal issues. Employers will also benefit from a healthier and more productive workforce.

Communication with Employees 

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate – communications with your employees should be at least two/three times a week outlining various changes being made, response to HSE guidelines, remote working etc. 
  • Increased empathy and support is required with employees at this very anxious time and creating a team spirit to dealing with this pandemic

These unsettling times will come to an end, however, in the meantime, we must all adhere to the HSE Guidelines and other best practice guidelines and while maintaining appropriate governance and oversight. If you would like to discuss the potential impact of these issues on your business, please contact a member of our HR Clients Solutions team:

  • Áine Dunne - HR Consultant 
  • Niamh Quinn – HR Administrator