Coronavirus: Do I have to go back to work after lockdown?

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The government has started easing lockdown restrictions, with more people now encouraged to start returning to work.

But for many, concerns remain about the risk of contracting the coronavirus once back in the workplace.

Can you be forced back to work and what are your rights if you are?

What has the government said?

On Sunday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that those who could not work from home should be “actively encouraged to go to work” in England.

Mr Johnson singled out people in construction and manufacturing as those who could not work from home, who should return to building sites and factories.

The devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are sticking with the government’s former mantra of: “Stay at home” and not encouraging a return to work.

I’m in an at-risk group, will I have to go back to work?

The 1.5 million people in England classified as being at high-risk if they catch coronavirus were advised not to leave their homes for 12 weeks from 23 March.

They included people who have received organ transplants or are on immunosuppression drugs.

Faye Law, senior adviser and conciliator at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) says these people, and millions of others considered extremely vulnerable, are not expected to return to their workplace.

Separately, people who are at-risk – but did not receive a letter from the government encouraging them to shield for 12 weeks – could have to return to work, but Ms Law says their employer should ensure strict social distancing rules are in place.

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The government has suggested workplaces limit the number of people using lifts

Can my boss make me work during lockdown?

Employment law expert Simon Rice-Birchall, from Eversheds Sutherland, thinks it would be difficult for an employer to force people to return to an office if they have shown that they can do their job from home.

However, those who are told to go in will not be entitled to sick pay if they choose to stay at home because they are worried about contracting the virus, he says.

“Somebody that’s vulnerable at home isn’t sick,” he says.

At the moment, government advice to work from home effectively overrides the content of most employment contracts, which require us to go to work, says Mr Rice-Birchall.

But David D’Souza from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says his organisation has been told about employers forcing people to work.

“That is of huge concern in terms of people’s physical and mental wellbeing,” he says.

“And whilst it’s understandable that organisations are trying to sustain themselves, doing that by having people working under conditions of duress is not what you would want to see in a modern economy.

“Any return to work should only be done if these criteria can be met: It’s necessary, it’s safe, and it’s mutually agreed”.

Tim Sharp, from the Trades Union Congress, says forcing people to return to work like that could put employers on the wrong side of the law.

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The days of the open-plan office could be numbered as employers have to maintain social distancing

For example, you’re not required to work if you hold “a reasonable belief that there’s a serious and imminent threat” to your health, he says.

What can I do if I’m unhappy with post-lockdown changes to my work site?

Both Ms Law and Mr Rice-Birchall said employees should speak to their bosses in the first instance if workplace social distancing isn’t being adhered to.

Mr Rice-Birchall said he expects a rise in employment disputes between employees who don’t feel safe at work and employers who argue that their roles can only be done on-site.

In these cases, Mr Rice-Burchill said disputes would arise if workers believe they are entitled to leave a site if they don’t feel safe.

“To my mind, they can only refuse to work if there has been an obvious disregard for what the government wants employers to implement, for example social distancing,” he said.

The government says if employees remain unhappy with the social distancing in place at work, they should report it to their local authority or the Health and Safety Executive who can force an employer to take further action.

Which workers are likely to return to work first?

The Prime Minister encouraging construction workers and those on factory lines back to work was expected, in part because those roles are simply impossible to do remotely.

Workers in those sectors will likely to return to work in the coming days and weeks, according to Charlie Netherton, from Marsh Risk Consulting.

At the other end of the spectrum, professional services firms have proved they can operate quite effectively with the majority working from home.

As a result, Mr Netherton says the government is not likely to prioritise getting office workers back to their desks.

But the picture becomes complicated in the entertainment and retail sectors, because it is unclear when people will feel comfortable returning to shops, bars and restaurants.

“I suspect a number of people will be cautious,” Mr Netherton says questioning whether it would be economically viable for restaurants to open their doors again, even if they were allowed to do so.

“Retail organisations are keen to start selling again, the challenge they have is understanding when the customers will return,” says Mr D’Souza from the CIPD.

I’m currently furloughed so cannot return to work, how will I be affected?

Coronavirus restrictions mean the work of many firms has come to a standstill. Pubs, restaurants, cafes, travel firms and estate agents are among those hit.

The Government says about 800,000 employers have reported furloughing workers since 20 April, when the programme started.

Some firms have forced staff to choose between working for 80% of their salary or being furloughed.

Companies don’t have to keep on any employees when furlough ends, and cannot use these payments to subsidise redundancy packages.

The hope is that by the time the scheme ends, restrictions will have lifted and businesses can start paying full salaries again.

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But employers could face allegations of discrimination if they only keep on staff who worked through the crisis, according to Ms Law.

“You could find it indirectly discriminates on the basis of disability, because people might be more likely to choose furlough as an option because they’ve got an underlying health condition,” she says.

“Or it might also be sex discrimination because it’s more likely the case that it’s the woman in a household that stays at home with the children.”

If my children are still at home, can I be forced to go to work?

Boris Johnson was clear on Monday that if schools are not open and furloughed workers cannot get childcare, then employers should not expect staff to return.

He called it an “obvious barrier to their ability to get back to work”.

While this is not necessarily legal protection if you refuse to go to work, Mr Johnson said parents and guardians who are prevented from returning “must be defended and protected on that basis”.

So, the guidance would seem to be that employers cannot force a return if there is no provision for children.

It is likely that childcare issues will continue for a few more weeks at least. Primary schools are not expected to start re-opening fully until next month. And Monday’s return-to-work government documents warned it may be necessary for childcare providers to introduce a temporary cap on numbers to ensure that safety is prioritised.

For Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, the situation still remains far too “vague” for parents and the childcare sector.

“Nurseries, pre-schools and childminders need a clear plan of action on how they are going to be supported, both practically and financially, to reopen as lockdown eases,” he said.