5th May 2009


 Issue No.  2009/10




In and amongst managing the economic problems many are currently facing, along comes a new flu virus with the potential to cause significant disruption.  Latest news reports indicate uncertainty on just how bad things might get and at the time of writing no one is sure how widely the virus will spread or how severe it will be.
However, it would be wise to consider how your business might react and deal with a sudden increase of ‘flu-ridden’ staff.  In the last 100 years there have been 3 pandemics and up to 25% of the UK population became ill each time.  Of course if the current bug takes hold then not everyone who gets it will get it at the same time.  However, absence levels will be sure to hit levels significantly above the background levels that are reported nationally at approximately 3.5%.  It therefore makes sense to look at the payment implications and some simple and straightforward actions that employers can take.
Information & Awareness
Being aware of how best to control the spread of the virus is the first line of defence.  Make sure your employees get and read the leaflet being circulated by the Government this week.  The most practical aspects are information on how the virus can spread and what basic good hygiene steps can be taken by everybody.  Click here for a copy of the leaflet ‘Swine Flu Information’.
Good Hygiene Practices
Good hygiene practice will help slow down the spread of the virus.  Encourage employees to always carry tissues – use them to cover mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing – throw it away after use and regularly wash hands with soap and hot water or sanitiser gel.
Not using hands to cover the face is very important and health advisors keep urging us to use the crook of our elbow if tissues are not to hand.
Absence Payment
If employees are unfit to work then the start point is to apply your existing contractual position.  This may be Statutory Sick Pay only, discretionary amounts above this or contractual pay depending on your established terms.
Experience tells us that employees have many different reactions to ‘flu’ bugs.  Some will take time off sick (almost at the first sneeze it seems) whilst others will stoically try to work through.  The problem for employers arises when they take the decision to ‘send home’ an employee.  If the employee doesn’t want to be sent home and the employer insists, then there will be a matter of payment.  The employee could argue that they should be paid normal earnings as the employer has in effect suspended them.  The best approach would be to seek to persuade the employee to agree that they are unfit for work because of their illness and would be better off ‘on sick’ to aid their recovery.  In which case the normal sick pay conditions would apply.
Some commentators have rather alarmingly suggested that we should prepare for travel restrictions or even the suspension of public transport!  In our view this is unlikely.  If though, employees are prevented from getting to work for such reasons then the employer is not obliged to pay them.  This is in reality no different than the situation that exists when employees can’t get to work because they are ‘snowed in’.  Just be consistent with how you respond.
Absence Cover
If a significant part of your workforce is affected then there will be an impact on your normal operations.  These are problems employers have faced in the past and solutions include being prepared by ensuring employees are multi-skilled and can carry out others' tasks, lining up temporary labour agencies so they can swing appropriate temporary labour into action for you, prioritising work to make sure key work is completed and efficient use is made of the resources available.
Home Working
Not many jobs can be satisfactorily performed on a permanent basis working at home.  Despite the recent legislation drive down the route of ‘flexible working’ this remains the case.  However, for some jobs a short period of ‘home-based’ work may be possible and it should not be ignored as a potential short-term solution if the job holder is unable to attend work  E.g. this might apply when they are able to work but have the flu virus and the employer does not want them spreading germs in the workplace – or – they may be well but have to be at home to care for others in their family who are ill as an alternative to unpaid dependent's leave.
These are just a few of the areas that employers should consider and employers are encouraged to keep up to date with the latest advice from the NHS, HSE and the Department of Health.  Should a serious outbreak and associated absence occur and you have concerns about the decision you are faced with then do take advice.
A bit of forethought now will stand you in good stead should the virus deveop into a major issue in the UK.




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