The coronavirus pandemic has taken the world by storm, with many cities advising employers allow their staff remote access to limit losses and exposure to infection. What was only recently a concern to be watched from afar has now hit home, and is affecting businesses across the country.
Many have questions as to what measures have been put in place to protect both employees and employers, and what is the appropriate protocol pertaining to sick leave and self-quarantine.
“As devastating as the effects of the virus has been outside of South Africa to date resulting in the loss of lives – South Africans or foreign businesses conducting trade in South Africa employing large portions of the South African workforce still need to ensure that despite the panic and the reality of the virus spreading further and further, laws are still to be abided by,” says Fadia Arnold of GoLegal, a law resource website.
“That said, during this time it should also be noted that this is a first-time detectable human virus and therefore labour laws could be relaxed by agreement between the employee and employer. Employee contractual obligations could be waived, or indulgences granted by the employer so that the spread of the virus does not affect an employee’s income or an employer’s revenue as far as reasonably possible during this time.”
This means that employers are tasked with continuing to comply with South African labour laws in this time, with special consideration to be taken of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993 (OHSA).
According to Arnold, the OHSA must be followed to its full extent, as the employer can land in hot water for not doing so.
Many corporate companies have put contingency plans in place to curb the spread of the virus, as well as protect employees and clients. These include securing the place of business against the infiltration of the COVID-19 virus.
Many grocery stores have now implemented a shopper item limit to curb overbuying as locals panic. Other measures that have been put in place include allowing the elderly a special hour to shop before younger customers, as well as the delivery of groceries.
Arnold recommends the following measures to ensure the workplace is secure:
– as little physical contact as possible between employees, clients, suppliers, contractors
– physical meetings and consultations be stopped immediately. Email or Skype conference calls are recommended
– employees should be supplied with hand sanitiser, face masks and other hygiene measures
– instructional posters on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus should also be clearly displayed in the workplace
“Simply implementing a no handshake or physical contact policy as an interim preventative measure can save lives during this time,” she added.
If an employee displays symptoms of the coronavirus, they must be instructed to vacate the working environment immediately and attend a doctor to be examined.
“According to the WHO, symptoms include respiratory infections, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties and in more severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death. That said, we have received queries from employers regarding employees abusing sick leave during this period and taking advantage of the panic,” Arnold said.
As a result, the sick leave rules stipulated in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act 75 0f 1997 – or the BCEA – still apply. The employee must ensure they have a medical certificate to provide to the employer. This can be sent in to the employer via email as there should be no or very limited contact with a sick employee.
“If an employee indeed contracts the virus, then during the period the employee is off sick and if he or she has not exhausted his or her sick leave benefits as per the BCEA, he or she is still entitled to receive his or her normal and full remuneration and benefits,” says Arnold.
Other measures the employer can consider is allowing their employees to work from home if this is a viable option for the business.
“However, employers must note that if they are instructing their employees to work from home then their employees are still entitled to their full remuneration and benefits as if they were working in the office or on-site as per the norm,” Arnold says.
If an employee is in a state of panic and is refusing to attend work for fear of contracting the coronavirus and they have not been granted permission to work from home, the employer must consult with the employee via mobile or conference call and hear the employee’s concerns prior to making rash decisions to dismiss the Employee for AWOL (absence without leave).
“The employer, in these circumstances and to avoid unfair dismissal disputes at a later stage, could offer unpaid leave, annual leave or agree to remote working conditions on a case by case basis,” she adds.