How SMEs are getting the brunt of the crisis

By Clive Rich

The Coronavirus pandemic has sent shockwaves through British industry but, with the lack of a safety net afforded to most corporate giants, it is our SMEs that are under the most pressure to stay afloat.

From a legal perspective, COVID-19 continues to present new headaches for small business, unable to rely on the overpriced services of city law firms.

Drawing from past experiences, we have outlined some of the key considerations your company could make to adapt to these admittedly unprecedented times. Although a daunting task, the legal risks posed by COVID-19 need to be carefully assessed and measures put in place to provide as much business continuity as possible.

We are moving into uncharted territory for many organisations and with more restrictive government measures a distinct possibility, there is no time like the present to review policies and staff contracts to consider the impact of enforced isolation.

Employers may be receiving requests to work from home, including from individuals whose roles are simply not suitable or amenable to home working. Under The Flexible Working Regulations 2014, employers must consider any such request, however they are not legally obliged to agree to such arrangements and can refuse such requests for prescribed reasons, such as the burden of additional costs, the inability to organise work among existing staff and the detrimental impact on quality or performance.

These days, organisations are increasingly better set up to enable home working and in cases where self-isolation is precautionary and the worker is able to work, it makes sense to allow it at least on a temporary basis.

In a highly fluid situation, it is important to ensure that any workplace policies introduced or changed must be applied consistently and fairly

Schools in the UK have closed their doors, putting additional strain on families who need to remain at home to look after children. Businesses are advised to use their discretion and put in place a clear policy for employees forced to look after children or vulnerable loved ones.

If employees ask for emergency time off in such a situation, the employer would have to grant this but would be under no obligation to pay the employee. However, the entitlement for emergency time is to deal with emergencies and should be for no longer than is reasonable. The likelihood is that provided they can do so, employees will either work from home or, at the employer’s discretion, take the time off as holiday, which in most cases should be paid.

In a highly fluid situation such as the Coronavirus pandemic, it is important to ensure that any workplace policies introduced or changed must be applied consistently and fairly. As such, employers must be particularly alert to the risk of discrimination impacting certain nationalities, ages, races, ethnicities or disabilities. You should also remind staff of the behaviour expected of them; treating employees of certain nationalities differently or making jokes related to Coronavirus could expose the company to discrimination claims.

Learn from the errors of the Trump administration, whose representative referred to coronavirus as “Kung-Flu” to reporter Weijia Jiang’s face, and take steps to ensure that no customers or suppliers are treated differently because of their race or ethnicity.

The rapid spread of the Coronavirus across the globe ensured stories of individual patients were quickly replaced by the media keeping score on an ever-swelling tally of cases and deaths.

When releasing any updates within your business on the health of an employee, contractor, or any other individual, it is essential to remember not to see it as yet another mere statistic and disclose any personal health information. Doing so may be tantamount to a breach of an individual’s data protection rights as health information constitutes a ‘special category’ of data.

Keeping up to date with the latest developments and advice will be key over the coming weeks and months, especially using information from trusted and highly authoritative sources such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), UK Government, NHS, and ACAS.

It is recommended that employers regularly update all relevant workplace policies and procedures in light of the latest official guidance. Remember, there are many myths circulating regarding the Coronavirus, hence it is important to only cite verified and trustworthy information sources.

While the worst-case scenario for UK SME’s, as a result of Coronavirus, may never happen, such an outcome should be planned for in the same manner as any other serious business risk. If the nation goes into total lockdown, effective risk management, planning, and communication right now are vital to protecting the interests of your business and its valued staff members.

Clive Rich is the CEO and Founder of LawBite