Legal restrictions may have been lifted, but the job’s not done for retailers.
Retailers, large and small, have been tackling the COVID-19 pandemic on all fronts, whether it’s footfall, supply chains, pricing, or personnel. The latter, in recent months, has created a significant headache for businesses as cases have soared and absences have followed suit.
The Omicron wave forced retail heavyweights, such as IKEA and Morrisons, to take decisive action, cutting sick pay for all unvaccinated staff who are forced to self-isolate. While large companies have the strength and depth to make such bold moves, the same cannot be said across the high street, where independent retailers have faced similar challenges, but on a smaller scale.
With the announcement last week that all remaining coronavirus restrictions have been lifted, including the legal requirement for people to self-isolate when testing positive for COVID-19, the need for such a firm and no-nonsense approach may be short-lived, or is it? After all, cases across the UK are falling; people now have a personal responsibility to decide whether they should self-isolate or not; and the Government has been clear on its plan ‘for living with COVID’. However, while the need to test daily as a close contact, or the requirement to wear a face mask indoors have been removed, the pandemic is still with us and businesses are still managing the fall-out from the coronavirus.
Retailers should continue to think carefully about how they manage the issue of sick pay, with a more incentive-led approach potentially a better way of encouraging staff to get vaccinated than the heavy-handed method of their larger counterparts. Not paying a discretionary bonus or discretionary sick pay to unvaccinated members of staff is relatively risk-free from a legal point of view but imposing unilateral changes to pay and conditions may result in successful claims.
In other parts of the world, including the US, companies have gone further by imposing monthly fees on employees or even threatening job losses if they don’t receive the coronavirus vaccination. But the ‘no jab, no job’ stance is fraught with legal problems in this country, in terms of sparking potential unfair dismissal or discrimination claims, and businesses need to be mindful of those issues and look at the individual circumstances on a case by case basis before going down this route.
Key considerations surrounding sick pay for retailers
So in a continually changing landscape, what are the key considerations for retailers in terms of managing their employees?
- Confirm and communicate your stance on self-isolation and statutory sick pay. While there is no legal requirement to self-isolate in England, if someone has COVID-19 symptoms or has tested positive, they should follow Government guidance to self-isolate for at least five days. It’s important to keep abreast of the latest Government guidance and be clear with your workforce on any changes to policies and processes.
- It’s still important to provide a safe working environment for employees in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. The Government has published a range of guidance for different sectors, including for people who work in or run shops, branches, stores or similar environments.
- It’s an ongoing issue that will continue well beyond the lifting of restrictions, so understanding employee and workers’ rights and what as an employer you should do if someone is unwell with long COVID is extremely important.
- There have now been a number of coronavirus-related tribunal cases relating to issues such as changing employment contracts, whistleblowing, health and safety and unfair dismissal.. Ensure that your grievance and disciplinary procedures are robust, up to date and followed fairly, and consider all the relevant changes that have been implemented since March 2020.
- Never has the issue of mental health in the workplace been so pronounced. The pandemic has rightly shone a light on the importance of health and wellbeing, regardless of the setting or sector. The last two years have had a profound impact on many people, so it’s essential for retailers to have open communication channels for staff and provide appropriate support for any employees dealing with mental health issues.
Fiona Hamor is an employment partner at Pannone Corporate.
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Melanie is a partner at law firm, Pannone Corporate, and works as part of the Intellectual Property Dispute Resolution team. She specialises in the resolution of disputes relating to intellectual property, reputation management, advertising, data protection, social media and trade libel.
Her focus is on the enforcement and protection of clients’ intellectual property and reputation, as well as brand strategy and management. She has particular experience in retail, fashion, manufacturing, technology, media and the creative industries.
Melanie is a member of the Chartered Institute of Trade Mark Attorney and the Licensing Executives Society.
For more information, visit https://pannonecorporate.com.