Coronavirus | Impact of School Closures on Employers

The Latest on COVID-19 (Cornavirus)

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) in the UK has risen to 590 but the UK Government has not yet banned mass public gatherings or ordered school closures but as it comes under increasing pressure this may change.

The current Government advice is to tell people to stay at home if they have either a high temperature or a new continuous cough.  People are being told not to go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital and that they do not need to contact HNS 111 to tell them they are staying at home and no testing will be offered to those who are self-isolating with mild symptoms.

The challenges (Covid-19) Coronavirus are presenting to employers are varied and potentially problematic and with the UK and Scottish Governments looking likely to announce they are stepping up the official response to the “delay stage”, the banning of public gatherings of groups of >500, school closures, etc looks increasingly probable.

We are receiving an increased number of queries from many anxious employers concerned that it is only a matter of time before school closures are imposed and the single biggest question they are asking us is:

What happens if staff need to take time off because schools are closed?

When it comes to staff needing to take time off due to school closures related to Coronavirus, Employers will need to tread very carefully to avoid risk of employment tribunal claims.

In the very first instance, existing legislation already entitles employees to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to look after someone who depends on them in an unexpected emergency (section 57A of ERA 1996), and this would certainly apply to Coronavirus situations where schools are closed and alternative childcare arrangements cannot be made or children become ill and need to self-isolate. 

The legislation does not limit the amount of time an employee is entitled to take off, and therefore it is not possible to specify the maximum period of time which is reasonable in any particular circumstances.  What is a reasonable amount of time off will depend upon the nature of the incident and the employee’s individual circumstances and employers must not take any disruption or inconvenience caused to the employer’s business into account.

An employee who is refused permission to take time off in accordance with the right or who is subjected to a detriment for taking it (or seeking to take it) may complain to an employment tribunal (sections 48 and 57B, ERA 1996). Furthermore an employee who is dismissed for the reason (or, if more than one, the principal reason) that they took or sought to take time off in accordance with their right will be able to claim unfair dismissal, whether or not they have the necessary qualifying service for an ordinary unfair dismissal claim (sections 99, 108 and 111, ERA 1996).

What About Parental Leave

It is also worth noting that in addition to time off for dependents, birth and adoptive parents with more than one years’ service also have a statutory right to parental leave which allows for them to take up to 18 weeks unpaid leave for each child for the purpose of caring for that child and this applies to children aged up to 18 years of age (regulation 13(1), MPL Regulations). Normally, employees must give 21 days’ notice of their intention to exercise this right and must set out at the outset the start and end dates in their notice.

There are a number of statutory offences in relation to parental leave that, if committed by an employer, would entitle the employee to bring a complaint to an employment tribunal:

  • Subjecting the employee to a detriment.
  • Dismissing the employee.
  • Unreasonably postponing a requested period of parental leave.
  • Preventing or attempting to prevent the taking of parental leave.

In summary, each case should be assessed on the facts and employers should avoid knee-jerk reactions.  The issues created by an outbreak of coronavirus are not normal and therefore the normal approach to absence and time off for dependents don’t apply.

The details noted above set out the legal minimum obligations for Employers.  Contracts of employment should always be checked to determine whether they provide for more favourable arrangements than the minimum obligations set out in the relevant legislation.

Despite the UK and Scottish Governments not imposing any bans on mass public gatherings, both the Scottish and English Football Associations have taken the lead and confirmed today that their respective leagues have been postponed and UEFA have suspended both the Champions League and Europa League.

In Scotland, the remainder of the Scottish football season, including grassroots fixtures, has been postponed indefinitely and in England all elite fixtures have been postponed until at least 3 April, but Football is not alone in making this decision.  Various other organisations have also cancelled public events including the Golf’s Player Championship, the England Tour of Sri Lanka as too have numerous other events.

At the time of writing this article it is unclear whether the official Government advice will change and extend to school closures and/or an official ban on mass public gatherings.

Advice and Support

If you are an employer who requires assistance with any of the issues raised in this blog call us now on 0800 612 4772 or Contact us via our website.    

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