Fifth of businesses have not considered pay for self-isolating staff

People Management and CIPD survey reveals how HR professionals are responding to the coronavirus, with firms urged to check their stance on contractual sick pay and the feasibility of offering this

Almost a fifth of employers have not considered how to handle pay for those who are required, for whatever reason, to self-isolate as a result of coronavirus, a survey of People Management readers has found.

As the virus spreads and more people are beginning to self-isolate, 17 per cent of the 640-plus HR professionals polled admitted they had not considered whether or not they would pay, and at what level, those required to place themselves in quarantine.

Roger Tynan, partner at Gunnercooke, told People Management it was “shocking” many employers had not considered how they would pay staff, especially in light of government projections that a fifth of workers could be off sick at the same time as a result of Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus.

“Whether we reach Italian levels of infection, it’s going to be significant for employers, and yet a fifth haven’t turned their mind to that question yet,” Tynan said. 

Tynan added that he suspected the remaining 83 per cent of employers would not have considered pay for casual workers or those on zero-hours contracts in the event of them self-isolating. He warned that, as a result, such individuals might continue to work even with symptoms because they were “under financial pressures to do so”. 

The People Management poll also explored how those employers who had considered the matter, anticipated they would respond to the question of pay in instances of self-isolation. Half (51 per cent) said they would offer full contractual sick pay to all staff required to stay at home because of coronavirus, including some or all non-traditional workers such as those on zero-hours contracts.

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But Krystyna Petersen, founding partner of Inspire Excellence and co-founder of MyPeopleClub, sounded a note of caution over the feasibility of employers offering this level of sick pay if large numbers of workers are eventually off sick or self-isolating at the peak of the virus. She told People Management that, in her experience, not all companies would be able to afford such generous sick pay, raising questions over whether employers may be reassuring employees on this matter currently, while simultaneously hoping or assuming a situation in which they had to offer large swathes of their workforce this level of sick pay would never come to pass.

“In my experience and most of the companies that I’ve worked for in the past, a lot of businesses would not be able to, even if they wanted to, afford that kind of pay policy,” Petersen said. “Unfortunately, most employers can't afford to give everybody full pay if they’re off.” 

Of the remaining respondents who didn’t say they would cover full contractual sick pay to all staff, 16 per cent said they would offer contractual sick pay only to full-time staff, a similar number (15 per cent) would offer statutory sick pay (SSP) to all employees, and 12 per cent would only offer SSP to those who were officially eligible. 

Last week, in response to concerns about people ill with the virus attending work and spreading it further, prime minister Boris Johnson announced in parliament that people off work because of coronavirus would receive SSP on the first day of their absence. This marked a change from previous rules, under which SSP came into force on the fourth day of absence.

However, Andrew Crudge, associate for Trethowans, said it was unclear whether this move to allow all workers SSP from day one would also mean staff would be entitled to contractual sick pay.

“It’s more complicated when staff aren’t showing symptoms and aren’t unwell, but they’ve been advised medically to isolate,” Crudge explained. “In that circumstance, it’s been made clear employees would be entitled to SSP, but will they be entitled to contractual sick pay as well?”

He advised employers to urgently revisit their current sick pay policies. In some contracts, the exact circumstances around SSP and contractual sick pay will be clearly worded and, if they are not, businesses must clarify their stance immediately, Crudge advised. 

The People Management and CIPD poll also explored how HR professionals anticipate reacting in the event of school closures and staff needing to take time off to care for children.

Seven in 10 respondents (70 per cent) said they would encourage staff to work from home where possible. But a fifth said employees would either have to take unpaid emergency leave (14 per cent) or use their annual leave (7 per cent) if they were forced to cover caring responsibilities while schools were closed. The remaining 9 per cent indicated staff wouldn’t necessarily be able to work from home but would be paid nonetheless because of these being ‘exceptional circumstances’.

But speaking to People Management, Jude Read, managing director of Jude Read Consultancy, said many of her clients had not fully considered the impact of coronavirus and school closures on their business, warning that remote working would not be an option for many sectors.

“My clients are in manufacturing and logistics, and the heart of the business is on the shop floor, which can’t be done remotely,” Read explained. “I’ve told my clients we need to plan because, if the worst case happens, we still need people to come into work.”

Read warned that with any flexible working policy changes enacted because of the outbreak, employers needed to make clear now how long the arrangements would be in place. “I’ve told businesses that we need to make it very clear this will be a temporary arrangement, and that we have the right to revert back to the contractual working arrangements,” Read said. 

But Professor Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD and professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School, said remote working necessitated by the coronavirus outbreak would hopefully give employers the opportunity to test out and appreciate the feasibility of such arrangements long term.

“People are now being given permission by many companies to work flexibly because employers have no other option, and we’re going to see the benefits,” Cooper said. “It will be a couple months before this [the coronavirus panic] wears out so businesses will see there weren't many negatives associated with flexible working and that staff remained productive.”