COVID-19 and your staff

So much has changed in the last fortnight, and much is still uncertain. As organisations across the sector try to adapt both their creative work and their working methods simultaneously, what key points should HR teams and managers bear in mind?

  1. Communicate – as far as you can, keep staff informed and updated about the organisation’s plans for this period. If you don’t have a disaster management plan, make one now: who needs to talk to who, when, about what, and how are decisions made and communicated? Build capacity into that plan for the times when people named in it may be sick themselves.
  2. Health and Safety (including mental health) – staff safety should be a priority. As of 26 March 2020 statutory regulations are in force mandating the closure of many types of businesses. If your workplace is still permitted to be open, are you following recommended hygiene practices and adapting systems and procedures to ensure a safe working environment? If you are aware of an infection amongst your staff, whom do you need to notify to enable protective/further measures to be taken by others (remembering that individuals should not need to be identified and being mindful of data protection rules).
    Don’t forget to consider good mental health and safety too – what can you do to reassure and support staff in these stressful and difficult days? Do you have an Employee Assistance Programme – what support can it provide to staff during this time? If not, where else can you direct your staff for support? In particular, if you have staff now working from home, remember to assess any additional risks linked to loneliness and isolation.
    Every mind matters, Covid-19 staying at home advice is available from the NHS:
  3. Homeworking – can you instigate this and if so, for which roles? Will staff have enough equipment to do their work, and if they don’t what does the organisation need to provide: do staff need second SIM cards, stationary supplies or expenses allowances? Practically, how can you work together from multiple locations – do you have video calling or conference calling options for your team to virtually meet up?
  4. Flexible working – state schools closed on Friday 20th March until further notice. Childcare is going to become an issue for many of the people you work with. What changes to patterns of work can you make to support your staff and ensure that your organisation can still function?
  5. Monitoring – productivity/performance/absence monitoring systems may need to change, particularly if you have instigated home working. If monitoring performance is something your organisation needs to do, how can you adapt these systems for the current climate?
  6. Discrimination – be mindful that as you change systems and practices, you do not inadvertently create new ones which are indirectly discriminatory for those with a protected characteristic. Do you need to reassess what adjustments need to be made for those staff with a disability?
  7. Temporary changes to employees’ working hours and pay – If you have staff who need to manage childcare or other caring responsibilities, or who are unable to do their jobs from home, or as an organisation your payroll will simply become unsustainable during an extended closure, then you should consider what temporary changes to working hours and salary can be agreed with your staff. Options of enforced annual leave, unpaid leave, any existing contractual rights the employer has in relation to periods of lay off, or adjustments such as temporary part time hours are all possibilities.
    In addition, the Government has now announced more details on its Job Retention Scheme – widely referred to as placing staff on ‘furlough leave’. The scheme will be open to all employers with a PAYE payroll that was created and started on or before 28 February 2020, including charities. Employers will be able to apply for grants of 80% of furloughed employees’ monthly wage costs, up to £2,500 a month, plus the associated Employer National Insurance contributions and minimum automatic enrolment employer pension contributions on that wage, provided they keep the worker employed. However, during a period of furlough leave the staff member must not work for the employer at all to remain eligible.
    Placing someone on furlough leave is an amendment to their employment contract, and so you must get their consent to that change and to any resulting reduction in their salary. All employment law rights, for example qualifying employees’ rights against unfair dismissal and to a statutory redundancy payment remain in force. If you are placing large numbers of staff on furlough leave you may need to consider the regulations on collective consultation, and you must ensure that when selecting employees to designate for furlough leave that fair and non-discriminatory criteria are used.
    The rules on furlough leave are new, still evolving, and complex. Organisations should read the most up to date details carefully and ask themselves questions such as: which staff can or should be furloughed; for how long; whether staff already made redundant can or should be rehired and then placed on furlough leave; how the wages of staff who work on flexible contracts should be calculated; and whether the organisation will contribute the additional 20% of salary for the period of furlough. Organisations which currently receive public funding for revenue costs should also consider whether that funding is effectively already a grant to cover wages for at least some staff (if the public funding is unrestricted, it is hard to see how it could be directly attributed to staff costs, however in the absence of more detailed guidance this remains a risk) – and what the position of their funder may be on the actions they plan to take.
    Always consider taking legal advice on your organisation’s particular situation.
  8. Sick pay – some of your staff are going to be ill. What is your organisation’s sick pay policy – does it need to be updated? Are all staff aware of it? Are you keeping up to date with the changes to Statutory Sick Pay brought in by the Government: in particular, who is entitled to SSP, from what point, and whether as a business you are able to reclaim it? If you have staff on furlough leave who become sick, what pay should they receive for that time? Staff who cannot work due to coronavirus and are eligible for Statutory Sick Pay will be eligible from day one, rather than from the fourth day of their illness.
  9. Self employed – contractors are very common in the creative sector, and are likely to suffer the most immediate effects as shows and events are cancelled.
    The Government announced a self-employment income support scheme on 26 March 2020. Again, the rules on eligibility and operation are new and evolving, but in outline the scheme is intended to provide a taxable grant of 80% of an individuals’ trading profits (averaged over the last three tax years) up to a maximum of £2,500 per month for (currently) a three month period. Individuals must have submitted a tax return for the 2018-2019 year to qualify, and there are limits of £50,000 on total profits with rules on income from other sources.
    Organisations should note that HMRC will be assessing and contacting self-employed persons directly – it is not a scheme to which they can apply for help now. Payments may not start to be made for some months. Organisations should review the contracts you have in place with self-employed contractors and consider your organisation’s financial position as well as your legal obligations: remember our obligations to each other as human beings too.
  10. Long term job security – the most difficult one. Organisations will be stretched, incomes will be reduced, and although the sector will come through this, it is going to mean changes for some. Nobody wants to think of making redundancies, and the option of furlough leave in the short term offers an alternative that should certainly be considered first. However, not all organisations will be in a position to offer it, and once the scheme ends, some organisations may find they cannot continue in the way they did before.Keep your organisation’s situation under constant review, talk to your staff, make sure you know when and how to take difficult decisions, and what your duties and obligations are in law.

Keep safe, and keep in touch. We are on hand to offer help during these difficult times.

Information correct at date of publication, but intervening events and latest Government announcements mean that this post is now out of date. Please contact us for future guidance.

Photo by Mia Baker on Unsplash