COVID-19 and disabled, shielding or other vulnerable workers

If you are disabled, pregnant, over 70 or have an underlying health condition you should take extra precautions to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic and may previously have been told to ‘shield’.

People who are immunosuppressed or immunocompromised may be particularly at risk and may not respond as well to  COVID-19 vaccines.

Can my employer refuse home working?

The governments in England, Wales and Scotland are no longer instructing people to work from home where they can, although this is subject to review. In Northern Ireland the advice remains to work from home where you can.

However, working from home remains the most effective way of reducing workplace exposure to the virus and as a minimum, employers should continue to follow national government instructions and guidance on home working.

Your employer must provide you with the support required to comply with the advice for where you live.

Despite the new guidance, employers still have a legal responsibility to protect their employees and others from risks to their health and safety. This includes undertaking risk assessments and providing information and consultation to identify any additional steps they need to take to keep you safe.

Working from home should continue to be considered for disabled, pregnant and older workers and those with an underlying health condition.  This is particularly the case for those who are immunosuppressed or immunocompromised.

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

If your current role cannot be done from home your employer should consider whether you can be temporarily re-deployed to a role that would allow home working until it’s safe for you to return to the workplace.

Alternatively, your employer should consider offering special paid leave and other types of adjustments if you cannot work from home.If home working is not reasonable, disabled workers who are at high risk and those who are pregnant should be offered the option of the safest available on-site roles, particularly if they might normally spend time within two metres of others. Your employer should carefully assess what is an acceptable level of risk.

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

If you need support to work at home or in the workplace you can apply for Access to Work. Access to Work will provide support for the disability-related extra costs of working that are beyond standard reasonable adjustments an employer must provide.

Employers should also do everything they reasonably can to allow staff over the age of 70 to work from home where possible and should consider the risks to all older workers, particularly those working in roles where social distancing is difficult to maintain.

If you have been experiencing symptoms of ‘Long Covid’ or ‘post Covid syndrome’ then this could mean that your employer must treat you as a disabled person for the purposes of rights under the Equality Act 2010.  This includes the duty to make reasonable adjustments and other protections against unlawful disability discrimination.

Guidance for disabled members (PDF)

Advice for pregnant workers 

What if I have been shielding and am at high risk of becoming seriously ill from coronavirus?

If you are ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ you should have received a letter from the NHS with advice on “shielding” from  COVID-19.

Shielding was paused in all four nations of the UK in April 2021. The UK government issued new guidance for clinically extremely vulnerable people in England on 12 July 2021, in advance of the changing of most restrictions on 19 July 2021.

The UK government’s latest guidance advises that it will no longer be necessary for the government to instruct people to work from home, but that your employer should be able to explain the measures it has in place to keep you safe at work.

Separate advice applies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and you should follow the advice for where you live.

Your employer should undertake a risk assessment and should continue to allow you to work from home or to take special paid leave if you have been shielding.  This is particularly the case if you are immunosuppressed or immunocompromised.

If your employer will not grant you special paid leave for this period you may be eligible for furlough (through the Job Retention Scheme), which has been extended until 30 September 2021, but the scheme has some complicated eligibility requirements and remains something that only the employer can decide to access.

Read the UK government’s updated guidance on protecting clinically extremely vulnerable people

While an employer may have decided to put a shielding employee on furlough, it must not subject anyone with a protected characteristic (eg disability or pregnancy) to unlawful discrimination.

Now that the Furlough scheme has ended, employers need to be considering of the need to continue to support staff who are at a higher risk and need to consider all options in supporting the employee to undertake activities for the employer.

Speak to your UNISON branch if you think your employer is not treating you fairly.

What if I have family members who were shielding?

If you live with (or care for) someone who had been shielding then ideally, your employer might allow you to work from home or to take special paid leave. Your employer must be told of your circumstances and how these are affected by someone who is clinically extremely vulnerable.

It will be important that the employer avoids making a decision (or an omission) that is discriminatory due to your association with someone who has a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.  For example, this might typically apply where you have a close association with someone who is disabled, pregnant or on maternity leave.

If you cannot work from home then your employer should individually assess the risks you might face and take steps to minimise your risk in the workplace,  which might also include considering the risk if you travel by public transport.

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

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