Coronavirus shutdown: what should employers do?

Coronavirus shutdown: what should employers do?

The closure of schools, colleges and childcare facilities across Ireland, along with other public facilities and a raft of advice on social distancing and crowded spaces will disrupt employers, a large firm in Cork has warned.

The closure of schools, colleges and childcare facilities across Ireland, along with other public facilities and a raft of advice on social distancing and crowded spaces will disrupt employers, a large firm in Cork has warned.

Peninsula Group Ltd, an employment law and HR consultancy firm with offices at South Mall, has highlighted the options available to employers and employees amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced on Thursday that all schools, colleges and childcare facilities in Ireland are to close until March 29 at the earliest.

Speaking in Washington, Mr Varadkar said cultural institutions will also close but public transport will continue to operate.

Shops, restaurants and other businesses are to remain open but limitations are being placed on indoor and outdoor gatherings of people.

Indoor gatherings of 100 people or more are cancelled, while outdoor gatherings of 500 or more are also cancelled.

The Taoiseach said: "This will involve big changes and enormous sacrifices but we are doing it for each other.

“The economy will bounce back, lost time at school can be recovered, we must look out for each other.” 

The Health Service Executive also updated their advice by encouraging members of the public to take social distancing measures including limiting social interactions, avoiding indoor, crowded spaces, shaking hands and all forms of close personal contact.

“These measures represent a significant escalation in government intervention to contain the coronavirus outbreak and look certain to disrupt employers,” explained Alan Hickey, Associate Director of Advisory at Peninsula.

“The principal challenge the shutdown poses for employers is increased short notice absence from work.

“With schools and childcare facilities closing, many employees will need to stay home to care for their children and make alternative caring arrangements,” he added.

“This could result in a large number of employees needing time off at once, something that may be difficult for businesses to manage.

“Assessing how much time should reasonably be allowed will vary from case to case, and it will be essential to maintain contact with staff during any periods of leave during the shutdown.” 

Mr Hickey advised both employers and employees to first check their employment contracts to see if the shutdown triggers any clauses or policies.

“Certain employers may have included business continuity or contingency policies that may prove useful in the current circumstances,” he explained.

Depending on the nature of the business carried out by the employer, Mr Hickey said there are a number of options available to handle short notice requests for time off for childcare reasons.

“Where possible, allowing employees to work from home for some time may allow them to manage both their domestic and work responsibilities during the shutdown,” he explained.

“Employers could agree that the employee uses banked time off in lieu.

“Lieu time is unlikely to cover an extended absence but may allow the employee enough time to arrange alternative childcare,” he added.

“Alternatively, the employee could use their annual leave entitlement for a short period of absence to allow them to make the necessary childcare arrangements.

“Employees may also have leave entitlements under their employment contract that may be appropriate in these circumstances - if it is possible to agree to a period of paid leave that is not annual leave, employees should avail of this option.” 

Mr Hickey explained that not all businesses will be in a position to provide a period of paid leave, and it may only be possible to agree a period of unpaid leave to cover the shutdown.

He also highlighted the possibility of some employees being able to make use of parental leave.

“If the employee’s children are below the age of 12, you could allow the employee to take a period of parental leave to cover absences caused by the school shutdown,” he said.

“Parental leave is unpaid, but the employee’s role enjoys protected status during a period of parental leave under the relevant legislation.” 

Alternatively, Mr Hickey advised that exploring a combination of the above options could be the way forward for employers and employees.

A mixture of the above statutory and contractual leaves could be used to cover an extended absence,” he concluded.

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