High Risk Employees and Discrimination Issues

This article focuses on High Risk Employees and Discrimination Issues and the information contained within it has been collated from a variety of reliable sources to ensure UK Employers are aware of their legal obligations and to assist them to deal with the various implications imposed by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak.

If you are an employer affected by any of the issues being created by the outbreak of Coronavirus and require further assistance and support, call us now on 0800 612 4772 or Contact us via our website. 

High risk employees and discrimination issues

Where an employee refuses to attend work because they have a disability which they believe puts them at high risk of serious illness if they catch COVID-19, can an employer dismiss them, or if not, what pay are they entitled to?

People who suffer from certain health conditions are at higher risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19. A requirement imposed by an employer to continue travelling to and attending work, or to not pay or to dismiss them due to their absence in this scenario, could amount to discrimination. In addition, if the reason the employee self-isolates is because of a disability that puts them into a high-risk category such as an auto-immune disease or a respiratory condition, disability discrimination issues may arise.

Indirect discrimination. There may be a case that the employer’s provision, criterion or practice (PCP) of requiring all employees to continue to attend work in a pandemic could be indirectly discriminatory against the employee and those who share the employee’s disability. In such a case, the employer should consider whether the PCP can be justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Discrimination arising from disability. Discrimination arising from disability occurs where both: 

  • A treats B unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of B’s disability.
  • A cannot show that the treatment is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

(Section 15, Equality Act 2020 (EqA 2010.) 

Where an employee self-isolates because of their disability and their employer treats them unfavourably because of this by not paying them or dismissing them for unauthorised absence, the employee could have a potential claim under section 15. The employer’s actions would be because of “something arising in consequence” of the employee’s disability (the employee’s decision to self-isolate). As no comparator is required in respect of a section 15 claim, it will not necessarily be a defence for the employer to argue that it would treat all employees who decide to self-isolate without medical instruction in the same way. 

The employer may, however, escape liability if it can show that:

  • It did not know, and it was not reasonable for it to know, that the employee was disabled; or
  • Its treatment of the employee was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim of, for example, maintaining staffing levels in its workplace to meet customer demand. 

Reasonable adjustments. An employer may be liable for a failure to make reasonable adjustments if it does not facilitate a disabled employee’s request to work from home in a pandemic. However, where the employee’s role is not suitable for remote working, it will not necessarily be a failure to make a reasonable adjustment for the employer to not continue to pay a disabled employee who self-isolates before seeking medical advice. The EAT has held that the purpose of reasonable adjustments is to facilitate a disabled employee to remain in work, or to return to work. The emphasis is therefore on assisting the employee to work, not to not work.

Where an employer decides not to pay a disabled employee who self-isolates, it could potentially be argued that this is hindering the employee from “remaining in work” as few employees can afford to remain employed without pay for the duration of a pandemic. The EAT has, however, commented that the purpose of the legislation is not to treat disabled persons as objects of charity, and these comments were upheld by the Court of Appeal in O’Hanlon v Commissioners for HM Revenue & Customs [2007] IRLR 404.

Where a disabled employee refuses to attend work because of the perceived increased risk because of their disability, medical advice should be sought as soon as possible, from the employee’s GP or occupational health, to confirm or clarify the potential risks and to see what adjustments, if any, should be made to assist the employee in continuing to work. Where the matter is urgent and there is insufficient time to obtain medical advice, employers may wish to err on the side of caution.

How should an employer deal with an employee who has severe anxiety and is afraid to attend work?

An employer should be sympathetic to any concerns staff may have and try to resolve them to protect the health and safety of the employee. For example, if possible, the employer could offer flexible working, or allow the employee to take holiday or unpaid leave. 

An employee with severe anxiety may find their condition is exacerbated by travelling or being in public places due to the increased risk of contracting COVID-19. If their anxiety prevents them from attending work in these circumstances, it is possible that they may be regarded as on sick leave and therefore entitled to SSP or contractual sick pay.

Where an employee suffers from severe anxiety, this could amount to a disability under the EqA 2010. Medical advice should be sought as soon as possible from a specialist treating the employee, or occupational health, to determine whether the employee is disabled (if there is no recent diagnosis) and, if so, to see what adjustments, if any, should be made to assist the employee in continuing to work, such as home working or flexible hours.

What about other high-risk employees who choose to self-isolate?

Some employees may fall into a high-risk category in relation to COVID-19 but are not disabled. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified that those aged over 60, or who suffer from cardiovascular disease, a respiratory condition, diabetes, an auto immune condition or who are pregnant, are at a higher risk of developing more severe symptoms.

Such employees may wish to self-isolate, even before seeking medical advice. The Acas guidance states that an employer should listen to any concerns staff may have and if they are genuine, the employer must try to resolve them to protect the health and safety of their staff. For example, if possible, the employer could offer flexible working, or allow the employee to take holiday or unpaid leave. Employers should consider whether there are any potential indirect age discrimination issues if they require all employees to be in receipt of either a fit note or written request under regulation 2(1)(b)(i) to be eligible for contractual sick pay.

Is an employer liable where an employee is harassed by other employees or customers because they are from a country with a high incidence of COVID-19? 

There have been reported incidents of racial harassment of Asians in relation to COVID-19. Unfortunately, there is the potential that employees may be harassed by colleagues or customers in the workplace because they are perceived to be at a greater risk of having the virus. 

For the purposes of the EqA 2010, anything done by an employee in the course of their employment is treated as having also been done by the employer (section 109(1)). The employer can be liable for harassment in these circumstances, whether or not the harassment is done with the employer’s knowledge or approval (section 109(3)). 

There is a defence available to an employer if it can show that it took “all reasonable steps” to prevent the employee from doing the discriminatory act or from doing anything of that description (section 109(4)). 

Employers would be advised to establish a zero-tolerance approach to harassment in the workplace, which is communicated both internally and externally, ensure all workers are aware of their anti-harassment policy and provide training to all staff on how to recognise harassment and what is inappropriate behaviour.

The position is more complicated when an employee is harassed in the workplace by a third party, such as a customer or visitor. The third-party harassment provisions in the EqA 2010 were repealed in 2013 and the scope of the protection offered by the general harassment provisions of the EqA 2010 have been considerably narrowed by case law since then. To establish liability, the employee would need to show that it was their employer who “created” the intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment which is likely to be difficult to prove.

Government Guidance

The COVID-19 pandemic is continually changing and the government advice for employers is being updated as the situation develops. Employers should keep track of the guidance for employers from the following sources:

  • Health Protection Scotland: COVID-19: Information and Guidance for Non-Healthcare Settings (applicable in Scotland).
  • Welsh Government: Coronavirus (COVID-19): employers and businesses guidance (applicable in Wales).

For information on the circumstances in which individuals should self-isolate see the following sources:

  • Public Health England: COVID-19: stay at home guidance (applicable in England)
  • Public Health Wales: Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Self-isolation advice (applicable in Wales)