With the furlough scheme coming to an end this month, the Chancellor announcing a new Job Support Scheme and the government reversing its ‘back to work’ advice, businesses are trying to get their heads around what’s staying the same and what’s changing. It’s clear from government messaging that the latest restrictions are expected to be in place for the next six months, and that it’s likely to be at least this long before we have a solution that protects against Covid-19. So, what does all this mean for you and your staff, and especially the implications for your duties as an employer? Sandhya Iyer of The HR Dept anticipates the issues you will likely need to address over the next few months.

What does the new Job Support Scheme mean for my business?

The Job Support Scheme is picking up where the furlough scheme lets off, running for six months from November, and is intended to support viable jobs in businesses whose staff are forced to work reduced hours due to the effects of the pandemic. The key points include:

  • The government will subsidise the pay of employees who are working on reduced contractual hours due to the effects of the pandemic, as long as they are working a minimum of a third of their normal contracted hours.
  • The grant is capped at £697.92 per month per employee and is open to all small and medium-sized businesses; the grant will also cover NI and pensions.
  • Larger businesses can qualify if their turnover has fallen during the crisis. What constitutes ‘large business’ and a ‘fall in turnover’ in the context of the JSS grant needs to be seen; this is one of the areas on which we are awaiting clarification.
  • Employers using the Job Support Scheme will also be able to claim the Job Retention Bonus – a one-off payment of £1,000 per furloughed employee, retained at work as of Jan 2021– if they meet the eligibility criteria.
  • The Job Support Scheme caps the government’s contribution to 22% of a worker’s wages, down from 80% at the start of the furlough scheme.

Businesses must pay staff for the hours that they work; of the hours that they can’t work, the government and the employer will each pay a third, meaning that someone who is working a third of their normal hours will earn 77% of their regular pay. I hear you say, this is great for the employee but not so much for employers!

So how does a third plus a third plus a third equal 77%? This is worked out as follows:

  • The employee must work at least 1/3 of their hours (33%) and be paid for them by the employer.
  • That leaves 66% of their hours and pay remaining.
  • It is this 66% which is relevant for support purposes: the government and the employer both pick up a third of this 66%, so 22% each.
  • The government’s contribution is therefore 22% of their normal wages, with the employer’s share amounting to 55% (33% the employee hours worked plus the 22%), giving a grand total of 77%.

What this means for staff facing redundancy:

  • If an employee is on notice of redundancy or part of a redundancy pool, then the employer cannot make them a part of the JSS.
  • If a few employees are not at any risk of redundancy, but their hours have been reduced as a result of redundancy consultations, with the intent to retain jobs, then such employees can become a part of the scheme once consultations have ended and it is confirmed that their jobs are secure, albeit on reduced hours. This would hold good even if there are some other staff within the same company whose jobs unfortunately will be made redundant.
Where to work?

Given the rising cases of affected individuals, and a possible second spike of the pandemic, the Prime Minister’s announcement and resultant government guidance on Tuesday 22 September 2020 to businesses was very clear:

Staff members who are able to work from home must continue to work from home, or go back to working from home if they have returned to the workplace since the easing of lockdown.

The exceptions

  • Working from the workplace aids the mental health of an employee, whereas this is not the case if they were to work from home consistently
  • Operationally it is impossible to work from home.

 As is the case with any piece of guidance, there are many layers to these instructions once we start looking at them in practical terms.

The mental health argument in practice

It is no good for an employer to claim that working from home isn’t in favour of the mental health of their staff just because of a general feeling of frustration amongst staff about working from home. This is more applicable to staff who have a clear issue with cases such as depression, anxiety or any condition which gets exacerbated due to the consistent lack of social contact. And even then, an adjustment of allowing the employee to come into the workplace would need to be made in a measured manner, based on individual needs – is two days a week sufficient or does it have to be five days of the week? A one-size-fits-all approach – such as saying all staff with any underlying mental health issues will be able to come into the workplace – will not be viewed as a prudent approach, nor the most socially and legally responsible tactic, on the part of an employer. So, take this on a case-by-case basis and work out through mutual agreement what works for your staff and your responsibilities as an employer, given the government guidance.

Operational need

It may be tempting for business owners to ask most of their employees to come into the workplace if operations are not being carried out from home currently. However, the question that will be asked of any employer is: what would be a reasonable adjustment to enable a staff member to work from home?

For example:

  • Can you provide your administrator with a printer at home to be able to send out necessary paperwork to your clients, and thereby save them having to come into work? Most probably, yes.
  • For a motor garage, could you set up all tools and machinery in the garage of your staff’s residence – most probably, not!

And hence the question asked of any employer, in the event of any issues down the line, would be what was reasonable as an adjustment to enable an employee to work from home? And where it was reasonable, an employer would need to be able to demonstrate clear reasons why such an adjustment was not made to enable home working. 

In a nutshell, in situations where an employer wants an employee to work from the workplace, or where the employee does not want to work from home, consultation will be necessary – and of course seek professional advice before making a decision one way or another because some of these decisions could have repercussions further down the line. There is no doubt you understand your business demands the best, but you will be surprised to know what neutral and professional advice can do to help you look beyond the obvious and arrive at a solution which protects your business, staff and the public at large. It is important that the guidance is not just taken onboard when making any decisions, but that a business is able to justify their decisions, if they were challenged at any time in the future.

Covid-secure workplaces

Some businesses have already invested heavily to make sure their workplace is Covid secure, but you may also need to consider how you manage social-distancing within your own office on an ongoing basis. Many businesses are operating a bubble system which ensures social distancing whilst minimising any transmissions across the entire workforce. Refer to our health and safety page for more information on whether there is anything you can do, in addition, to make your workplace covid secure. https://www.hrdept.co.uk/sevenoaks-tonbridge-tunbridge-wells/services/health-safety-management

How can you best support your employees’ mental health and wellbeing?

Unfortunately, there is evidence that both stress and anxiety have both increased in recent months. In a survey of 2,000 workers by LinkedIn and The Mental Health Foundation in April, more than half reported feeling more anxious, due to uncertainty about job security and working longer hours at home (on average an extra 28 hours – or four days – a month).

For some workers there have been additional strains of spending more time at home, with the UN describing the global increase in domestic violence as a ‘shadow pandemic’. The CIPD – the body for HR and people development – has useful guidance HERE on supporting employees who may be at risk of domestic violence during this time. READ MORE

Medics have also warned that those with alcohol use disorders have been at increased risk during the challenges of the last few months; again there is useful advice from the CIPD on supporting your staff in this area HERE

With spending relatively more hours working from home set to be the norm for the foreseeable future, this has implications for how you support your staff. The following are all questions that you should be addressing:  

  • What proactive plans do you have should any of your staff present themselves with issues such as increased stress or anxiety, domestic abuse or alcohol misuse?
  • Do you have ways and means of identifying these problems, for example if reliable staff started missing deadlines and appearing unkempt at work meetings?
  • Should you be assuming all these social issues as a personal matter and taking a strong line by disciplining the employee for a conduct or capability issue? Or should you take a balanced and supportive approach? What defines that balance between work and personal issues?

Your policies will outline your company culture and approach to these questions. Rather than take a knee-jerk reaction when faced with such an issue, take steps now to communicate to your staff your stance towards any such issues. 

How should you manage redundancies for the best outcome for all concerned?

Although the Job Support Scheme is intended to soften the blow of the furlough scheme coming to an end, many businesses will still need to consider the reality of redundancies. While this is obviously sad news, not all redundancies have to result in job losses; with the help of effective consultations, it may be possible to save jobs, albeit on reduced salaries and contracted hours, for instance – which could make you eligible for the Job Support Scheme. Or could you consider a sabbatical for your best-performing staff if you cannot afford to pay them in the short term?

If you are in the unfortunate position whereby you don’t think you can retain all your staff, commence redundancy consultations sooner rather than later – this was covered in my earlier article. As a reminder, consultations for redundancy should commence as soon as you realise you may struggle to meet staff costs. Always seek professional HR advice to get through the redundancy minefield.

What will you do if you are required to shut down your place of work?

It’s not something that any business wants, but there are a few scenarios whereby you might be ordered to close your place of work:

  • A clustered spike in coronavirus cases leading to a local lockdown
  • If any of your employees were to fall ill whilst at work, the track and trace system and/or Health and Safety Executive (Government Agency) would contact the employer. They would want evidence that you are observing strict control measures at work. If this is not the case, you run the risk of your workplace being ordered to be shut down until such time as they advise you may reopen. This makes it imperative to have effective policies and procedures in place to avoid being ordered to close your place of work; speak to your HR and Health and Safety advisers to make sure you have done everything you can and should.
  • Even if your workplace is a Covid-secure environment, given the fewer staff numbers within a small business, it may have to shut down by default if staff have to self-isolate as a precautionary measure. How can you run the business if most of your staff have to stay home to self-isolate and cannot work from home?

Whether the shut-down measure is by result of an order or by default, it could place a real strain on your business, especially if it is hard for staff to work from home.  If paying full pay or Statutory Sick Pay during a shutdown, are there alternative strategies to redundancies which you could consider, which will put less pressure on your cash flow to keep your business viable but also help you retain your best staff? Is laying off staff a better option (this will depend on the terms of your employment contracts), or could you furlough staff until it’s possible for them to work again? Having your contingency plan in place – and where possible, communicating it in advance with your staff – will put you in the strongest position to act nimbly and support your staff effectively through this additional hurdle.

Are your HR policies up to date?

The changes to our working lives as a result of the coronavirus restrictions mean some of your HR policies may no longer be applicable, while new ways of working may require additional policies. For example, if staff are continuing to work from home some of the time but come together once a week for a team meeting in a business hub, you would need to have policies to cover both remote working and operating in a business hub.

Areas to consider for your remote working policies could include:

  • How do you manage time keeping at remote meetings?
  • What are your expectations around dress code when staff dial into meetings from home?

You will also need to make sure your health and safety policies cover home working and working alone.

Does your handbook include a crisis management policy?

Areas to consider for meeting in a business hub could include:

  • Does meeting in a business hub entail the same principles as meeting in a workplace?
  • Do staff have to worry about dress codes?
  • What are the protocols around any paperwork carried or printed at such business hubs?
  • What Covid-secure measures are in effect at your chosen business hub to protect your staff?
  • What responsibility do your employees have towards their own health and wellbeing, and thereby their colleagues’, when they are outside of work, socialising?

None of us can guess how long it will be before we have a solution to this pandemic and its effects, nor can we expect government support to go on indefinitely – as is evident from the JSS. This makes it imperative to think about different scenarios and how you will handle them, as well as communicating this to staff so they are not taken by surprise; enabling them to prepare for different outcomes will help you secure their loyalty, which will in turn help you protect and grow your business.