Coronavirus: Working From Home?

17th March 2020
Paul Brooks

Everyone should work from home if they can, according to stringent new measures in the UK to combat the spread of Coronavirus.

For many people, homeworking will not be possible, but they still face the possibility of 14 days of self-isolation, under the guidelines announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In the recent Budget, some changes were made to the sick pay system which they may need to fall back on.

There has been concern that people will be more likely to infect others if they do not have incentives to stay at home when they are at risk.

Who needs to work from home?
Everyone who can work from home should do so. That creates practical issues for employers and employees, but workers should be given clear guidance as to what that means for them.

In normal circumstances, anyone working from home should receive an assessment of their domestic workplace. Clearly, this will not be possible at present, but some rights can be made clear. For example, working hours can still be clearly defined, and staff should receive their normal pay.

Who provides the equipment?
An employer is responsible for equipment they supply, and must say what it should be used for.

The question of who covers the running costs should ideally be outlined as soon as possible, and would normally be part of any working from home agreement.

Given the current situation, extra costs, such as phone bills, may need to be claimed. Employers will need evidence, but can explain how the expenses system works, and whether these costs are taxable.

Who is responsible for workers while they work?
An employer has a duty of care for staff, even if they are working at home.

The requirements of the health and safety legislation apply to homeworkers too, according to the employment conciliation service Acas.

What if I cannot work from home?
Owing to the financial pressures, some businesses have asked staff to take unpaid leave.

Employers have the right to tell workers to take holiday if they decide to shut for a period of time.

It is impossible for many people to work from home. However, under the new guidelines, if one person in any household has a persistent cough or fever, everyone living there must stay at home for 14 days.

Will I get paid if I self-isolate in this way?
Provisions for sick leave vary from company to company.

Many employees will have contracts that allow them their normal pay while they are unable to work because they are sick.

But the situation with self-isolation is more complicated – workers may not actually be sick so will not automatically be entitled to their contractual sick pay. That decision will be down to employers but the employment conciliation service Acas said it was “good practice” to offer contractual sick pay.

Even where people do not get their fully paid sick leave, or if they work in jobs where they do not have contractual sick leave, there may be minimum payments they can rely on, known as statutory sick pay.

What is statutory sick pay?
Statutory sick pay (SSP) is money paid by employers, so self-employed workers are not eligible, but casual or agency workers are.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that SSP would be paid to people who had been told to isolate themselves, even if they did not have any symptoms. He said people would soon be able to obtain a sick note from the NHS 111 service rather than getting one from a GP.

The rules were also changed so that those people would be eligible for SSP on their first day away from work, instead of having to wait until the fourth day as used to be the case.

He also announced that businesses with fewer than 250 employees would be able to claim back from the government two weeks of SSP paid to staff affected by coronavirus.

How much is statutory sick pay?
It is set at £94.25 a week, although of course employers could pay more if they want to.

To put that into context, average weekly earnings in the UK in December last year stood at £544 a week.

To get SSP people need to be earning at least £118 a week. Many people such as those on zero-hours contracts – who work variable hours every week – may earn less than this. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has calculated that there are two million workers who are not eligible for SSP and Labour has asked the government whether they will now be covered.

We asked the Office for National Statistics to check this figure and they estimated that there were 1,766,000 jobs done by adults in the UK that paid less than £118 a week.

The number of people involved is likely to be somewhat lower than this because one person could have more than one of these jobs. And indeed, if somebody has more than one of these jobs it could take them above the £118 a week needed to qualify.

About 70% of these jobs are done by women.

The GMB union has called on the government to force companies to give full pay to workers who are isolating themselves to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

It says that the government could use legislation that allows for staff to be suspended on full pay for up to six months for specific medical reasons involving risks of radiation or lead poisoning. The government could use a statutory instrument in Parliament to extend that to include people isolating themselves because of coronavirus.

Will self-employed people get sick pay?
Broadly speaking, employees are entitled to sick pay and self-employed people are not.

In the latest UK figures for the last three months of 2019, there were about 28 million employed people and about five million self-employed.

The government has said it will make it “quicker and easier” for self-employed people affected by Coronavirus to access benefits.

The chancellor said that those on contributory employment and support Allowance (ESA) will be able to claim from day one, instead of day eight.

He is also temporarily removing the minimum income floor from universal credit. The minimum income floor would have taken into account how much you would normally expect to earn in a month when calculating your entitlement to universal credit.

Not having the floor means they will be able to claim for time they spend off work due to sickness.

What is universal credit?
He said they would not need to attend a job centre and could apply on the phone or online instead.

The government has also announced a new £500m fund to support economically vulnerable people, which will be allocated by local authorities.

Will I get paid if I need to care for somebody else?
If you have a relative who is ill, or your children’s school is closed, for example, your employer must give you time off to do so.

But your employer is not forced to pay you unless your contract requires it.

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