These are hard times for companies right now, dealing with the COVID-19 lockdown and all of the issues it is throwing up, keeping afloat and trying to keep your staff employed to name but a few. The Government has introduced some specific legislation to try and address the immediate issues and are providing ongoing guidance and assistance. The primary objective of this is to try and keep viable businesses afloat and employees of the live register.
However, there have been no substantive amendments to the pre-existing employment legislation and this could create major problems down the line in the form of a tsunami of claims to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC). What I mean by this is that an employer may inadvertently breach the legislation as a result of the problems thrown up by and the ad-hoc workarounds in responding to COVID-19. All of the obligations and responsibilities on an employer to provide employees with a safe place of work and working environment remain in place, including for those employees who may be working remotely.
The majority of employment law offences are offences of strict liability, i.e. the employer has either complied or not, there is no grey area. Therefore, in order to avoid potential claims down the line, we would advise employers to do the following;
A good first port of call for employers to make sure that their house is in order is the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) website. They are offering very good and practical advice along with template documentation.
The employees most likely to bring claims down the line are those disgruntled employees who feel as if they have not been listened to.
In terms of practical steps employers should take, we would suggest the following;
- Prepare a COVID-19 Policy; appoint a COVID-19 Officer who will be responsible for all COVID-19 related policies and procedures.
- Document everything; all of your decisions, policies and communication of these to your employees.
- Listen to your employees and engage with them taking on board their input into your COVID-19 Policy document.
- Regularly visit and take guidance from the HSE and HAS on the COVID-19 emergency.
- Contact your Solicitor or Health and Safety Consultant if you have any specific concerns or queries.