As the spread of the coronavirus Covid-19 in Europe begins to accelerate, so do the number of questions from employers in Belgium. Is your organisation ready to face the consequences of this epidemic situation? What are the most effective ways to protect your employees and the organisation?
Since the Minister of Employment's press release of 6 February 2020, the coronavirus can now be invoked as a case of force majeure. As a result, Belgian organisations affected by the consequences of the coronavirus (for example because they no longer receive deliveries from China) can invoke the system of temporary unemployment due to force majeure. The employer must then submit an electronic declaration to the competent unemployment office for where its organisation is located, citing the coronavirus as a reason for force majeure. For this purpose, the employer is also required to back up its request by providing evidence of force majeure (that is, an unforeseeable event) and the existence of a link between the coronavirus and force majeure.
Based on worker welfare legislation, the employer has the duty to analyse the risks arising from the coronavirus and, on that basis, to take all necessary and appropriate measures to safeguard the health, safety and well-being of all its employees.
Employees themselves also have an important role to play in their own health and wellbeing and that of their colleagues. They must therefore cooperate with their employer to enable it to meet its obligations under worker welfare legislation.
Employers can take a few simple precautions to ensure the wellbeing and the health of their staff. For example:
- Limit business trips to China. The Belgian Government advises against all travel to Hubei province and recommends postponing non-essential journeys to other parts of China.
- Correctly inform staff without causing panic. For example, the employer can give an explanation of the current situation and any government advice by email or posters.
- Seek cooperation of staff when travelling to highly infected countries. For employees who have recently returned from China or Italy, or have been in contact with someone who is infected with the virus, the employer could ask for the full cooperation from employees, and advise them to consult a doctor for a diagnosis. The employer may request the assistance of the work prevention advisor or occupational physician.
In the context of the coronavirus, the employer and any employees who have recently returned from China or even Italy may decide by mutual agreement that the employee will temporarily telework. Since the employer is responsible for the health of all employees, employees with symptoms associated with the coronavirus should be encouraged not to enter the workplace in order to reduce the risk of infection.
However, at the time of wring, an employer could not demand the forced quarantine of an employee returning from China or Italy, thereby preventing him or her from returning to work unless the employee poses a real risk of contamination to other employees. The Federal Public Service Health has also emphasised that there is still not an epidemic situation in Belgium at the time of writing.
It should be noted, however, that people presenting a serious risk of contamination are in principle quarantined after their repatriation to Belgium.
Lastly, employees who are actually infected with the coronavirus and are therefore unable to perform their duties under their employment contracts can rely on the usual rules for incapacitated employees, including payment of the guaranteed salary for the first month's absence, if they can provide the required medical certificates.
Be vigilant when employees return from their holidays: they might have travelled to or stayed in contaminated regions.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.