Coronavirus germs

Coronavirus: your rights at work

Updated: 2 June 2020 at 14:00

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The UK government has announced an easing of lockdown restrictions in England. Guidance around easing of the lockdown in the devolved nations can be found using the following links
Northern Ireland

Many UNISON members have continued to work throughout this crisis, providing essential services to help deal with the pandemic. Some have worked where they normally do, others have been redeployed, while some staff have worked from home.

More UNISON members in England will be at work again and may be working with colleagues who, until now, have been in workplaces with fewer staff.

UNISON is working proactively with the government and others to keep you safe at work.

If you need to go to work

What if, following the UK government’s announcement on 10 May, now need to return to work? 

Employers should make every reasonable effort to enable staff to work from home in the first instance.   

If this is not possible, then before you can return to your normal workplace your employer should undertake a risk assessment to make it ‘COVIDsecure’. 

Read our guide on how to work safely.

What is a risk assessment? 

A risk assessment is what an employer must do to keep their workers and anybody else who may use their workplaces, safe from harm. 

COVID-19 may cause you harm so employers must therefore put in place measures to prevent its spread. More details on what a risk assessment is can be found on our Risk Assessments page.

What should my employer do to keep me safe at work? 

If you have any coronavirus symptoms, regardless of where you are working, you should stay at home and self-isolate. 

Your employer should take all reasonable steps to allow you to work from home. However, government advice is that if it’s absolutely necessary to travel go to work, people should stay two metres apart from others.  

Your employer should have steps in place steps to achieve this ‘social distancing’ where possible, and ensure staff are provided with, and instructed in the regular use of, the appropriate hygiene facilities. 

More on social distancing and hygiene in the workplace

Your employer should also:

Speak to your UNISON branch if you are concerned your employer is not following the guidance.

What if I don’t feel my workplace is safe?

UNISON believes that our members should never be in a situation where they might endanger themselves and others in the course of doing jobs.

Putting you in that situation is potentially a breach of health and safety law and may spread coronavirus to people in high-risk groups.

As a last resort, when faced with a dangerous working environment which cannot reasonably be averted, every employee has the right not to suffer detriment if they leave, or refuse to attend their place of work (or take other appropriate steps) in circumstances where they reasonably believe there is a risk of being exposed to serious and imminent danger (section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996).

Although this is very much a right of last resort, the context of a situation will be key on whether refusing to return to work or any other steps are appropriate.  This means that an employee cannot automatically refuse a reasonable instruction to return to work without a good reason.

If you feel you are being put at risk it is crucial to get advice and discuss the situation with your UNISON representative. Contact your branch and if needed you can seek advice from our regional office or legal team.

How does coronavirus affect my holiday entitlement?

The government has provided guidance which applies to England, Scotland and Wales.

Northern Ireland government has also published advice.

UNISON is looking at the implications for members and will update our advice as soon as possible.

Specific advice for NJC staff on local annual leave schemes or the new statutory government scheme

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Do I need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?

This depends on what you do, where, and with who you work. You are more likely to require PPE if you are providing direct care to service users, or cleaning premises contaminated by COVID-19.

For other groups of staff other measures such as working from home, hand hygiene, social distancing and shielding those most at risk are most effective. The best protection against COVID-19 is, if possible, to remove yourself from any sources of infection. That is why UNISON have campaigned to make employers comply with social distancing guidelines.

Sometimes, keeping two metres apart is not be practical, for example, when you are looking after children in schools or caring for vulnerable adults. This will mean some form of PPE may be required. Our PPE guide provides further advice on this.

It’s important that PPE is concentrated on those who need and are trained in its use. Unnecessary and incorrectly used PPE may put yourselves, colleagues, family and friends at additional risk. The virus lives longer on plastics than ordinary clothes, so if not correctly used and disposed of items such as masks can become vessels for spreading infection.

Read more on our PPE page

If you need protective equipment (PPE) to do your job

If it is absolutely necessary that you go to work, it’s vital your employer considers all measures to keep you safe. Where measures such as social distancing and workplace adjustments have failed or are insufficient your employer will need to consider other measures. These include providing you with the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to do your job safely.

UNISON has asked government ministers to resolve problems with the supply of equipment and to provide clearer advice about what you need to protect you at work.

There is a 24-hour employer helpline to report any shortages in health and social care providers in England.

We have a page of PPE detailed advice here

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Do I need to cover my face in public places?

The UK government have updated their advice about to wearing face masks. In England, they recommend you wear a home made cloth face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible and where you come into contact with others that you don’t normally meet.

This could be when using public transport or in some shops. Although this may not help the wearer it can help protect against the transmission of the disease to others. Similar advice has also been issued by the Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive.

The Scottish Government had already issued advice regarding the possible benefits of using ordinary clothing as a facial covering.

All agree that the most effective measures against the spread of the disease in public places remain social distancing and hand washing, and that PPE (such as surgical masks) should be reserved for workers or patients who actually require it.

Read our guidance on PPE for more information.

If you need to work from home

The government has advised you should work from home wherever possible.

If you are affected by school closures or travel restrictions

Do I have to go to work if my children can’t go to school?

Since 23 March, nurseries, schools and colleges have remained open only for children of key workers and vulnerable children
If you think you’re a key worker, you should confirm this with your employer and let the school know you will need to continue to send your child/children to school.
Children will return to nurseries, schools, colleges and childminders at different times depending on where they live in the UK. A problem for some parents is what to do if childcare is not available

Download the government guide to changes to school and education provision

If you need to stay at home to look after your children, you are legally entitled to unpaid dependant leave.  However, many UNISON members will be entitled to paid dependant leave due to agreements negotiated with their employer.

See what your contract says or talk to your UNISON branch if you are unsure what your rights are.

What if I can’t get to work because of transport closures?

Let your employer know if you’re struggling or unable to get to work because of transport closures.

Government advice is that people should work from home, unless it is ‘absolutely necessary’ that they travel to work.  If home working really isn’t possible then your employer should agree flexible working hours to allow access to public transport, access to free parking or consider providing private transport, for example, taxi.

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If you think you or someone you live with has coronavirus

What should I do if I think I have the symptoms of, or have had close contact with someone who has had, COVID-19?

For the latest information on symptoms, what you should do and how long you should self-isolate, see the “staying at home information” from NHS UK.

If I have to self-isolate, will I be paid?

If you can’t work while you are self-isolating because of COVID-19, statutory sick pay (SSP) is now available from the first day you are off sick.  If you are self- isolating but you are not sick, you may be expected to work from home, on full pay.

Speak to your UNISON branch if you are concerned your employer is not following the guidance.

If you live with someone who has symptoms of coronavirus, you can get an isolation note to send to your employer as proof you need to stay off work.  You do not need to get a note from a GP.

Get an isolation note

If you are paid less than £120 a week you will be able to access Universal Credit or Contributory Employment and Support Allowance more easily.

If you’re on a zero-hours contract you are not entitled to statutory sick pay unless you can demonstrate that you earn at least £120 per week from your employer.

UNISON are urging the government to help those on zero-hours contracts.

If you get contractual sick pay (a rate agreed by your employer), it’s good practice to ensure that such absence is not counted towards any sickness absence policy triggers points.

This has been agreed for NHS staff and the majority of local government staff (ie those covered by national joint council (NJC) terms and conditions.) A similar agreement is in place for local authority workers in Scotland whose terms and conditions are agreed at the Scottish joint council (SJC). UNISON Scotland issued an update on this in early March.

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Testing for key workers

The UK Government announced on 28 March that all essential workers who are self isolating can self-refer and book a coronavirus test.

Tests won’t tell you if you have previously contracted coronavirus, so you should only request one if you or someone in your household currently has coronavirus symptoms.  As an essential worker, all members of your household can also get tested.

The government’s list of essential workers

Testing is voluntary and your employer should not insist you request a test.

See more information for the devolved nations:

If you are over 65 and have symptoms you can also take the test.

Testing is most effective within 3 days of symptoms developing.

Book a test directly on the Government’s self-referral page.

You can select a regional test site drive-through appointment or a home test kit.

The online booking system has been experiencing problems due to demand, but if you encounter problems, keep trying.

What happens if I get a negative test?

If you are well enough and have had no temperature for the last 48 hours you can return to work. This will only apply if no other member of your household tests positive, or has coronavirus symptoms.

What happens if I get a positive test?

If your test result is positive, or someone you live with tests positive, you should not return to work and you should continue to self-isolate.

What should I do about track and trace?

This short and simple briefing from the TUC tells you what the issues are, what to look out for with employers introducing new testing initiatives and highlights the importance of being vigilant on privacy and data protection issues.

It covers:

· How testing should work

· Concerns about privacy and data use

· Surveillance at work

· How tracing should work

TUC briefing on track and trace

If you are pregnant

If you are pregnant the government issued “strong advice” on March 16 that you should work from home, if possible and be particularly stringent about ‘social distancing’.

See the government’s advice for vulnerable people

There’s also an existing legal framework that employers must follow regarding pregnant employees (and breastfeeding mothers).

Employers have a legal obligation to assess the workplace risks for pregnant employees and their unborn children, and breastfeeding mothers who have returned to work.

Your employer should therefore consider allowing you to work from home. If your job isn’t suitable for home working then your employer should consider whether you can be temporarily re-deployed to a role that would allow home working for the duration of this crisis, on full pay.

If working from home isn’t an option then your employer should undertake a risk assessment to identify any additional steps they need to take, such as providing you with additional personal protective equipment and ensuring social distancing measures are in place.  They should also consider reallocating some of your duties or offering you alternative employment at the same rate of pay if available

If none of this is possible, because of the risks caused by COVID-19, they must suspend you from work on full pay for as long as necessary. Your full pay should be based on your usual earnings, not pay based on your contractual hours.  If you are absent from work for maternity-related reasons (ie risks to pregnancy caused by COVID-19) the period of Ordinary Maternity Leave automatically begins 6 weeks before the expected week of confinement.

Pregnant women should not be placed on sick pay.

Local government employers have already acknowledged that in some cases they will need to allow staff who can’t work from home to stay at home on full pay.

Read more on our COVID-19 advice for local government staff page

If your employer won’t let you work from home contact your local UNISON branch for help.

If there is no specific health and safety risk but your employer is affected for example by a lack of demand or they are carrying out non-essential work, they may consider putting you on ‘furlough’.

See our guidance on furloughed workers for more information.

If you feel you have been discriminated against due to your pregnancy then contact your branch for advice.

What if I’m pregnant and also have a heart condition?

If you fall into this category you should have received a letter from the government about  “shielding”,  which is a way of protecting very vulnerable people from the virus.

The government is strongly advising people in this category to stay at home at all times and avoid any face-to-face contact.

Your employer must suspend you from work on full pay for as long as necessary to protect your health and safety or that of your baby. Your full pay should be based on your usual earnings, not pay based on your contractual hours.

You may have additional rights under the Equality Act 2010 if you are disabled as well as being pregnant

Speak to your UNISON branch if you think your employer is not following the guidance.

If you are pregnant and also have a heart condition but you have not received the letter, contact your GP by phone.

Read the full advice on protecting yourself if you’re at high risk from coronavirus on the government website.
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If you are disabled, over 70 or have an underlying health condition

Can my employer refuse home working?

On 10 May, the Prime Minister announced that workers should return to work if they can’t work from home. The next day, the UK government produced numerous pieces of guidance on its proposals.

However, the advice is stronger for two groups of people.  These are people with underlying conditions who are “vulnerable” to COVID-19 and those who are “extremely vulnerable”.  See the next section if you are “extremely vulnerable” and have been told to “shield”.

Workers with an underlying health condition (but not “shielding”) should work from home.

Refusal of home working for a disabled person might amount to unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act.

If your current role does not allow homeworking, your employer should consider whether you can be temporarily re-deployed to a role that would allow home working for the duration of this crisis.

Alternatively, your employer should consider offering special paid leave if you cannot work from home.

If homeworking or special paid leave is not an option, your employer must undertake a risk assessment to identify any additional steps they need to take to keep you safe.

For example, vulnerable workers should be offered the option of the safest available on-site roles, enabling them to stay two metres away from others. If they have to spend time within two metres of others, the employer should carefully assess whether this involves an acceptable level of risk.

If your employer won’t let you work from home or allow paid leave, or they have not undertaken a satisfactory risk assessment, please contact your local UNISON branch for help.

What if I am shielded and at high risk of becoming seriously ill from coronavirus?

People who are “extremely vulnerable” to COVID-19 include those who:

  • have had an organ transplant
  • are having certain types of cancer treatment
  • have blood or bone marrow cancer, such as leukaemia
  • have a severe lung condition, such as cystic fibrosis or severe asthma
  • have a condition that makes you much more likely to get infections
  • are taking medicine that weakens your immune system
  • are pregnant and have a serious heart condition

If you are in this group you should have received a letter from the NHS with advice on “shielding” which is a way of protecting very vulnerable people from the virus.

If you have not received a letter, register directly here.

The UK government is advising that people who are shielding can now leave their home if they wish, as long as they are able to maintain strict social distancing. This currently applies only in England.

However, the government advice means that you are still strongly advised not to go to work. Your employer should allow you to work from home or to take special paid leave.

If this is not possible you may be eligible to be “furloughed” – speak to your UNISON branch.  While an employer may decide to put a shielding employee on furlough, it must not subject anyone with a protected characteristic (eg disability or pregnancy) to unlawful discrimination.

If none of this is possible, depending on the circumstances, you may then you will still be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay and any occupational sick pay your employer offers

Speak to your UNISON branch if you think your employer is not following the guidance.

Read the full advice on protecting yourself if you’re at high risk from coronavirus on the government website.

What if I have family members who are shielding?

If you live with someone who is in the “shielded” category then best practice is for your employer to allow you to work from home or to take special paid leave.

While you may still be selected for furlough, it will be important that the employer avoids making a decision which is discriminatory due to your association with someone who is disabled, pregnant or on maternity leave.

Where special leave or furlough is not possible, UNISON is calling for Statutory Sick Pay to be extended to workers with shielded family members.

If your employer is not following the guidance speak to your UNISON branch.

What happens if I receive sickness or disability-related benefits?

The government has announced that face-to-face health assessments for sickness and disability benefits will be suspended and that there will be no new reviews or re-assessments of such claims for three months.  Existing awards will be extended for this period.

Find out more on the website

This means you should continue to receive PIP (personal independence payments), ESA (employment support allowance) and industrial injuries disablement benefit without having to attend a face-to-face appointment or to complete a review or re-assessment form.

If you have an outstanding assessment appointment please contact the phone number on the letter to make sure it has been postponed.

Government guidance on claiming benefits in light of COVID-19

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If you think you’re being discriminated against

The Equality Act gives workers with protected characteristics, including disabled, pregnant, Black, LGBT+ and women workers, certain rights, including protection from direct and indirect discrimination.  For example, employers must ensure that they do not make discriminatory decisions when selecting workers for furloughing and they must continue to provide reasonable adjustments to disabled workers working from home or being redeployed.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission have produced guidance for employers in the light of COVID-19.

If you think you are being discriminated against contact your UNISON branch.

UNISON has been pushing the government to address the disproportionate impact of the crisis on protected groups and we have responded to the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into this issue.

If you’re worried about paying the bills, redundancy or being ‘furloughed’ (Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme)

What if my employer is considering layoffs or redundancies?

The UK government launched the ‘Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’ in a bid to avoid mass redundancies. The scheme backdated to 1 March and will operate up to the end of October 2020.

Further information on furlough and the Job Retention Scheme.

Can I get help to pay my bills?

If you are on a low income you may be entitled to Universal Credit.

The government announced on 20 March that Universal Credit will be increased by £20 per week (£1,000 a year). Working Tax Credit will also be increased by £20 per week (£1,000 a year). The increase starts from 6 April.

You might also be entitled to more help with your rent. The government has announced that the Local Housing Allowance will be increased to cover more people’s rents.

Use our benefits checker to see what you’re entitled to

UNISON’s charity There for You can also offer help if you are in financial difficulty.

There for you

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How is my pension affected by COVID-19?

We’ve put together a Q&A on coronavirus and pensions.

Pensions Q&A

Further information

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Is coronavirus is affecting your mental health?

Whether you are working from home or at your normal workplace, you may find coronavirus is having an effect on your mental health.

Workers in the NHS and health care can find advice on our health workers page.

The Mental Health Foundation have produced a guide to protecting your mental health during the coronavirus crisis and MIND has produced a helpful guide which will be useful to anyone who has to practice social isolation.

UNISON’s There for You charity can also provide signposting to emotional support.
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