SFA – FAQ’s on Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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Small Firms Association (SFA) selected and answered the most frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 crisis in Ireland. Read below: 

Q: What is Coronavirus? 

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a new respiratory illness. Symptoms such as a cough, shortness of breath, breathing difficulties, fever can take up to 14 days to appear. There has been no confirmed case of coronavirus in Ireland. 

Q: Who is most at risk? 

Particularly people with health concerns, the elderly or those who are pregnant are most at risk. 

Q: How can I keep myself and employees informed? 

Keep informed of the ongoing developments around COVD-19 through official advice from Government and HSE

Q: How should I handle employees? 

It is important that employees are put at ease over potential outbreak of Coronavirus in Ireland. It is important to communicate the Heath Service Executive (HSE) recommendations to prevent infection spread. These include: 

  • Wash hands properly and regularly 
  • After coughing or sneezing 
  • after toilet use 
  • before eating 
  • if in contact with a sick person, especially those with respiratory symptoms 

Cover mouth when coughing and sneezing. 

  • cover your nose and mouth with disposable tissues 
  • if you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your arm or sleeve (not hand) 
  • put used tissues into a sealed bin 
  • wash your hands 

There are a number of campaign posters available which can be used to heighten awareness among employees. 

Q: What is social distancing? 

Social distancing aims, through a variety of means, to decrease or interrupt the spread of COVID-19. It does this by minimising contact between potentially infected individuals and healthy individuals. Social distancing is keeping a 2m (6ft) space between you and other people. You should not shake hands or make close contact where possible. For a social distancing poster see here

Q: Is it safe to travel? 

The Department of Foreign Affairs have advised against non-essential travel including Great Britain but excluding Northern Ireland. 

Q: How do I advise employees who work outside of Ireland? 

If your employees work outside of Ireland, they should remain vigilant and follow the instructions and advice from the local authorities. 

Q: How do I prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace? 

The Health Protection Surveillance Service has produced guidance for the Business and Retail Sector on preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. 

In addition, the following links provide useful tips on cleaning workplaces, currently. 

  1. This YouTube video from the HSE is very useful. Please bear in mind it was 

developed for healthcare professionals so in lieu of the wipes provided, most household disinfectants will work. 2. This link from the CDC, while developed for seasonal flu, is also very helpful. 

Q: What income supports are available to an employee who is diagnosed with COVID-19 or are suspected of having COVID-19 and are medically required to self- isolate? 

If you are diagnosed with COVID-19 or are medically required to self-isolate, employees and the self-employed are entitled to claim an enhanced Illness Benefit or Supplementary Welfare Allowance. The current 6-day waiting period for Illness Benefit does not apply to anyone who is diagnosed with COVID-19 or in medically required self-isolation. In addition, the personal rate of Illness Benefit has increased from €203 per week to €305 per week for a maximum of 2 weeks medically-required self-isolation or for the full duration of absence from work following a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 of up to 10 weeks based on your medical certification. The employer has the facility to top up this illness payment and this should be considered and in line with your company policy and cash flow. Employers may wish to review existing “sick pay” polices to refer to any social welfare benefit received in this context and align those payments with any sick pay rules. 

Q: Are employees entitled to pay if they are in self-isolation? 

Employers are not obliged by law to pay employees while absent, their entitlements to pay will be in line with their contract / sick pay policy. It is important for employers to look at their internal policies and procedures to evaluate the disruption of absences may have on their operations. Just like any other occasion of absence, an employee should notify the business and explain their potential absence. 

Q: Do employees living with someone who has coronavirus or has symptoms of coronavirus must restrict their movements? 

See here new guidance on restricted movements

Q: What do I do if my employee needs to take time off work to care for a person affected by COVID-19? 

In this instance, the employee may qualify for ‘force majeure’ leave under the Parental Leave Acts 1998 to 2019. Force majeure leave is very narrowly defined as in Section 13 of the Parental Leave Act 1998. This section of the Act entitles an employee to paid time off, where for urgent family reasons, owing to the injury or illness of an immediate family member, the immediate presence of an employee at the place where the person is, is indispensable. It therefore may have limited application in this case. This leave is normally limited to a maximum of 3 days in a 12 month period or a total of 5 days in a 36 month period. Consecutive days are the exception rather than the rule because ‘urgent’ circumstances have been traditionally been interpreted as unforeseen circumstances. Government have asked employers to consider, whether, in the exceptional circumstances of COVID-19, they might facilitate people by allowing them to take the full 5 days entitlement as one block if required. Further information is available here. 

Q: What if an employee does not want to attend work? 

Due to the closure of schools and childcare facilities, the increase in cases and in circumstances where remote working is not possible, we have seen a rise in employees who will not want to or not be able to attend work due to these reasons. Employers are asked to be flexible and to proactively engage with employees when dealing with this public health crisis, particularly where it is not possible for the employees to work from home. Employers should be mindful of anyone who may be more vulnerable due to age, pregnancy or a pre- existing condition and prioritise flexible arrangements for them during this time. 

The following policies can reduce social contact within a workplace: 

  • remote working – SFA remote working checklist 
  • flexible hours – SFA flexible working guidance 
  • staggering start times and break times 
  • teleworking arrangements 
  • using email and teleconferencing 
  • reduce face-to-face meetings and gatherings 

Where remote working is not an option employers may agree with employees that they take annual leave or unpaid leave or take parental leave or other forms of leave. All requests should be looked at reasonably, particularly given the closer of schools, colleges and childcare facilities. 

Q: How can I minimise the effects of absence on my business? 

Where possible, a proactive approach such as ‘cross-training’ employees in key areas would promote their business sustainability during an occasion of absence. If appropriate, they can also discuss the possibility of remote working

The Health and Safety Authority has published guidance: “FAQ’s for Employers and Employees in relation to Home-Working on a temporary basis (COVID-19)”

The Data Protection Commission (DPC) has issued guidance entitled “Protecting personal data when working remotely”. 

Q: Can I request my employee to work remotely during self-isolation? 

The employer has a duty of care for their employees. If the employee feels unwell and possess symptoms, it should not be expected that they work while in self-isolation. However, it may be possible for the employee to work remotely if 1) it is feasible (they possess their laptop 2) their role allows for it and they have been trained on the remote working policy. 

Q: My employees children’s school / crèche has closed, and they cannot attend work? 

This should be treated in accordance to their company’s absence procedure. The employee should inform the business as early as reasonably possible and provide the employer with regular updates. Employers should ensure all managers and staff are familiar with company policies and relevant legislation including 

  • Absence / sick leave, 
  • force majeure 
  • Employment Equality Acts 1998 to 2015 
  • Payment of Wages Act 1991. 

QHow do I handle a non Covid-19 absences? 

Employers at this stage should have reminded employees of the absence policy and procedure. In all cases whether COVID or non-COVID, an employee has the responsibility to communicate their intended absence for that day, with the reasons and expected duration of the absence. They should keep their manager informed daily or on a weekly basis if long term. 

Q: What is a temporary Lay-Off? 

This occurs where the services of an employee are not required because of a temporary lack of work carried out by that employee. There are many patterns of lay-off. It can be a period where no work is performed, or the employees may work one week on, one week off. Other patterns could include working three out of four weeks or one week in each four-week period. These patterns could be used alternating the working weeks between them. 

Q: What does the term ‘short-time’ mean? 

‘Short-time’ is when there is reduced amount of work available. There can be a reduction in weekly earnings of less than half the normal weekly earnings or a reduction in the hours worked to less than half the normal weekly working hours. The employer must give notice that the short-time is of a temporary nature with failure to do so leaving the employer open to claims for redundancy payment. 

Q: How do I select employees for lay-off/short time? 

This is a significant procedural issue which follows the selection redundancy practices. Selection for redundancy needs to be fair and transparent. Part-time employees may not be selected before full-time employees, simply because they are part-time employees. Fixed- term employees may not be selected before permanent employees simply because they are fixed-term employees. 

Selection can be based on LIFO (Last in first out) or based on knowledge, critical skills, business commitment and considerations experience etc. Process is to be carried out in a manner which is fair, objective and consistent. The selection cannot be a means for an employer to filter the poor performers out of the business. It is important to note that whichever selection process is taken will set a company precedence for future lay-off/short- time and redundancies. 

Q: Can employees who have been laid off or on short time claim a statutory redundancy payment? 

Under the Redundancy Payments Acts 1967 to 2014 an employee who has been laid off or kept on short time for a period of at least four consecutive weeks or for a series of six or more than three were consecutive within a period of 13 consecutive weeks may claim redundancy. 

Given the rapidly changing nature of Covid-19 pandemic this law has temporarily been changed as of 13th March until 31st May 2020. This may be subject to further extension. Under the Emergency Meaures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill (section 27) an employee will not be eligible to claim redundancy during this emergency period if they were laid off or placed on short-time work for four weeks or more, or six weeks in the last 13 weeks. However, the employer can still invoke their right to make an employee redundant during this time if that is required. Redundancy should be the last resort and all other options should be considered first. If you are faced with this situation you are advised to consult with the SFA. 

Q: Can my employee request to use their annual leave at short notice due to fear of contracting the virus? 

Where the employee is unable to make alternative arrangements, annual leave or unpaid leave could be considered on a case-by-case basis. If the employer authorises it and it will not affect the normal trading of the business, it can be allowed. In this situation, however they must ensure fairness to all employees and manage this equally to all employees. If an employer requests their employees to take their leave, they must provide 30 days’ notice of this requirement – ideally before the application of their lay-off/short-time. 

Q: Does my employee accrue annual leave during a period of lay-off/short-time? 

During this time an employee’s employment is paused and do not accrue annual leave, however public holidays are accrued for the first 13 weeks of the period of short-time/lay-off. It is important to communicate this to all employees who are in this situation. 

In general, leave such as uncertified sick, lay off, short time, strike will all affect an employee’s annual leave entitlement. Exceptions to this are in cases of protective leave such as maternity, parental, force majeure, certified absence. 

Q: Can I place my employees on short time for standby or on-call purposes? 

Under the Working Time Act on-call/standby time is generally not ‘working time’ (unless the employee is required to carry out duties during this time or remain at the employers’ premises – i.e. an overnight carer) – and only actual time for the call-out would apply. Exceptions can be made for emergencies in the case of support and maintenance of business critical issues. These may be considered as an “exempted activity”, so whilst employees who are “called out” will be entitled to compensatory rest equal to or exceeding 11 hours. It is important that employees placed on call-out or on standby do this in rotation with other staff members in the business.The on-call shifts should be paid in line with their basic pay. These employees can apply for short term benefit themselves for the days not worked (1-3), provided they had been originally working 5 days 

Q: My employee contracts do not have the lay-off/short-time clause – what are my options? 

This is a difficult situation, while you as the employer do not have the right to introduce these temporary situations, ultimately you do not want to lose or have to make any employees redundant. You must meet with the employees individually to ask them to consider and agree to the temporary change. Employees will generally agree to this especially in these current circumstances as they equally understand it is a temporary measure which will help avoid the triggering of redundancies. 

Q: Will my employee automatically pass his/her probation period during this period of lay-off/short-time? You should communicate your intention if applicable to extend their probationary period (can only be extended up until 11 months), inform them that this probationary period will be suspended until the business resumes as normal. While employees with less than 12 months continuous service cannot take a claim under the Unfair Dismissals Acts 1977 – 2015 for unfair dismissals, they can take a claim for unfair dismissal under the Industrial Relations (IR) Acts 1946 – 2015. This means that regardless of their length of service, employees are protected against cases of unfair dismissals. 

Q: Can I reduce/cut my employee’s salary? 

This situation must be in line with either their contract of employment or by agreement of the two parties. Employers should communicate their intention to reduce salaried in an informal setting (staff meeting). They should be made aware for how long this will last, by how much and will there be any back pay owed to them. It must be managed carefully and sensitively as it will require their agreement to the change of terms. – there may need to be

negotiations. Employees should be informed that it is a temporary measure to protect the roles of as many as possible and to avoid redundancy situations. 

Q: What help is available to small firms? 

Information on Government supports for COVID-19 impacted businesses are available here. Information from Revenue is also avialble

Q: What is the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment? 

This payment is available to all employees and the self-employed who have lost their employment due to a downturn in economic activity caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Information on how to qualify, rate of payment and how to apply is available here

Q: What will happen after the 6 weeks 

This payment was introduced to provide emergency income support. This is not a jobseeker’s application. If you are unemployed you will still need to apply for and be assessed for jobseeker’s payments. We recommend you do this as soon as possible. Jobseeker’s payment online 

Q: What is the Temporary COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme? 

The scheme replaces the previous COVID_19 Refund Scheme, it enables employees, whose employers are affected by the pandemic, to receive significant supports directly from their employer. The scheme is expected to last 12 weeks from 26 March 2020. For further information see Revenue Commissioners website. SFA recommends all queries relating to this scheme be directed to My Enquiries. 

Q: Is my company essential business. 

SFA cannot advise whether your business online or otherwise should temporarily shut down. Businesses must take a responsible approach to the Government guidance. If you sell non- essential categories and want to remain open online, we suggest you review the matter every evening and change your online language from talking about commerce to being there to support your customers, implementing all health and safety protocols. 

If you however have a vital worker, you as the employer must provide a clear definition of their role and document the reasons why they are essential. They should be provided with a letter to confirm that they are required to be at work, including the location of the business, and a contact mobile number. 

Q: What does the term Cocooning mean? 

Cocooning is a measure to protect those over 70 years or those extremely medically vulnerable by minimising / removing interaction between them and others. This means that

these people should not leave their homes. Even within their homes should minimise all non- essential contact with other members of their household. 

The Government advice is 

  • To strictly avoid contact with someone who is displaying symptoms of COVID-19. (Fever/continuous cough) 
  • do not leave your house 
  • do not attend any gatherings. (including those of friends / families in private spaces for example family homes, weddings and religious services) 
  • do not go out for shopping and, when arranging food or medication deliveries, these should be left at the door to minimise contact 
  • keep in touch using remote technology such as phone, internet, and social media 
  • do use telephone or online services to contact your GP or other essential services 
  • ensure you keep phones/devices charged, and have credit on your phone so that you can stay connected 

All employers should familiarise themselves with the Government guidance 

Q: What is the Temporary wage subsidy scheme

The government announced new measures to provide financial support to workers affected by the Covid-19 crisis. To be eligible for this scheme the business would have to be 

  • Experiencing a 25% reduction on Business Trade / customer orders / Turnover, 
  • be experiencing significant negative economic disruption due to Covid-19 
  • Be unable to pay normal wages and normal outgoings fully and 
  • Retain their employees on the payroll for the duration of the scheme 
  • The Scheme is confined to employees 

This is a self-declaration scheme where an employer is required to do their own assessment to see if they are eligible. Cash flow projections and customer order forecasting is essential, and the basis of this decision should be documented (e.g. meetings you had with your accountant or payroll specialist). Employers are not obliged to top up their employee wages while availing of this scheme, but are encouraged to do so. The SFA have provided a list of FAQ’s on this scheme and there are available FAQ’s and Guidance available on www.Revenue.ie. 

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