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’.

Can my employer refuse home working?

The government’s advice is that all workers in England should only leave their home for work if they cannot reasonably work from home.

There are similar rules in place for people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Your employer must provide you with the support required to comply with the advice for where you live. This is particularly the case for disabled, pregnant and older workers and those with an underlying health condition.

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 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.

Your employer must undertake a risk assessment (and keep you updated) to identify any additional steps they need to take to keep you safe.

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 must 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.

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 may have received a letter from the NHS with advice on “shielding” which is a way of protecting very vulnerable people from the virus.

The UK government issued new guidance for shielded people in England which paused shielding on 1 April. The government still advises you to work from home if you can.

You are also advised to take extra precautions to keep yourself safe.

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

Your employer should allow you to work from home or to take special paid leave if you have been shielding.

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 recently been extended until September, but has some complicated eligibility requirements.

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.

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 someone who was shielding then best practice is for your employer to allow you to work from home or to take special paid leave. Your employer must be told of your circumstances.

If you were selected for furlough, and are being told that you must now return to work, 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.

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

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

> Back to our main COVID-19 advice