Employers criticised for asking staff to work amid lockdown

24 Mar 2020 By Siobhan Palmer

Experts urge firms not to ‘put profit over people’ as some consider remaining open and request workers send children to school despite strict new measures

Employers including activewear giant Sports Direct have come under fire for vowing to stay open and asking staff to work as normal, despite government guidance for all but essential businesses to shut and workers to travel to work only where completely necessary.

On Monday evening (23 March) prime minister Boris Johnson announced further measures to limit the spread of coronavirus. Johnson told the public only to leave their homes for very limited purposes, which included shopping for basic necessities, one form of exercise per day, for any medical need or to assist a vulnerable person, and travelling to and from work where “absolutely necessary”. 

Johnson also announced the immediate closure of all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronics stores and other premises, including libraries, playgrounds, outdoor gyms and places of worship. The government list of retailers allowed to stay open included supermarkets, pharmacies, garages, newsagents and petrol stations, as well as banks and post offices. 

Following Johnson’s address, retail group Frasers Group, which includes Sports Direct, wrote to all its staff saying it would be keeping stores open amid the lockdown. According to an email seen by the PA news agency, the company’s chief financial officer, Chris Wootton, claimed: “We are uniquely well placed to help keep the UK as fit and healthy as possible during this crisis and thus our Sports Direct and Evans Cycles stores will remain open where possible to allow us to do this (in accordance with the government’s current social distancing guidance).”

The decision provoked a backlash on social media, and was questioned by Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, as well as government minister Michael Gove. 

Sports Direct has now said stores will not open until the company is given the go-ahead by the government, and that it is currently seeking confirmation as to whether the shops constitute an essential service. 

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Kate Ledwidge, senior associate at law firm JMW Solicitors, warned firms that “if employers are forcing workers to come in to perform non-critical roles, this could lead to a legal claim from a health and safety perspective or even a constructive dismissal claim (at a push)”.

While noting that companies could see legal claims in the future as a result of forcing staff to work, Ledwidge also said “the biggest immediate issue is the serious reputational damage if you are seen to be prioritising profits over public safety”.

Guy Pink, former HR director at Addaction, said businesses should only remain open if absolutely necessary, noting that the government instructions were “pretty clear”. However, he added that employers deemed essential still needed to act responsibly if they were allowed to stay open. “Responsible employers should be looking at the government guidance and, if they stay open, [looking at] how they're going to ensure their own staff’s safety and health is protected, as well as the people who use their services,” Pink said. 

However, Claire McCartney, resource and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, called for more government guidance. “[Employers need] more detail on the people who qualify as key workers, and further information on which businesses are non-essential and are not allowed to operate as a result of the new restrictions,” she said.

Confusion around which workers and businesses constituted key workers, and criticism of employers seen to be seeking loopholes in these classifications following the latest ‘lockdown’ measures, have followed calls from educational bodies for employers not to incorrectly and disingenuously classify their employees as key workers. Education leaders have warned that otherwise schools would be overwhelmed with pupils when most should be at home under school closure rules, which stipulate only the children of key workers and vulnerable children should be sent.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, made an appeal to employers to “not interpret the key workers lists liberally for your own ends. Do not put profit over people.” 

McCartney recommended that employers “work with their employees to find some flexible and creative responses to schools being closed”. She said: “Things to consider when planning how this can be managed over the longer term might include: flexible working hours, flexible start and finish times, part-time workers potentially splitting work hours over more days or the whole week, reduced working hours (with associated adjustment to salary) or altered role responsibilities.”

Rachael Saunders, education director at Business in the Community, echoed McCartney’s calls. “Employers should be doing all they can to make sure people can either work from home or work in very safe environments,” she said. 

But she added: “Schools are still there to support the children of key workers... and also support vulnerable families [and so it was important] to make sure those families whose children may face particular challenges or have particular needs do feel able to continue to keep in touch with school.”

Other companies such as JD Wetherspoon have also attracted criticism for their approach to social distancing guidelines, with the pub chain’s boss, Tim Martin, originally vowing to keep all branches open for as long as possible. 

Following the government’s shutdown of all pubs, cafes and restaurants last week, Martin has also reportedly informed all employees they will not be paid for April until government job retention scheme grants come through, and has suggested staff find work in supermarkets. 

The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union released a notice yesterday (23 March) saying the company “holds no regard for the financial and mental wellbeing of their staff”. 

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