On 12 April 2021, we enter Step 2 of the government's roadmap for easing lockdown restrictions in England. The headline changes include the opening of outdoor hospitality, non-essential retail, hairdressers and beauty salons, the easing of restrictions on weddings, as well as overnight stays in England now being permitted. For many employees of businesses that have been closed, this will mean returning to the workplace for the first time in months. For businesses that have remained open, none of the Step 2 changes will impact their workplaces directly, but employers should consider the potential issues that we set out below when managing their workforce during Step 2.
Reopening of businesses
In a number of sectors, including non-essential retail, hospitality and leisure, Step 2 marks a significant development in the easing of restrictions, allowing businesses to reopen after months of closure. Employers will need to ensure that they have taken adequate steps to make their workplace COVID-secure in accordance with the latest guidance from the Health and Safety Executive, including conducting a thorough risk assessment and consulting with staff in advance of opening. Employers should give particular consideration to protecting those employees who are clinically extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 and others who are vulnerable to the virus, including pregnant women.
Many members of staff will have been furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, and employers will need to lawfully terminate the furlough arrangements of staff returning to work. Care should be taken not to unlawfully discriminate when deciding which employees to bring back to work and which to keep furloughed or to furlough on a flexible basis.
Employers may need to change working hours to accommodate different opening times or a modified service. Consulting with employees about such changes will help to identify any disproportionate impact on particular groups of employees.
Communicate standards of conduct expected from workforce
With beer gardens opening and a change of season on the horizon, the temptation of a lunchtime trip to the pub with colleagues or after work drinks, may prove too much for many. Employers cannot dictate what their staff do in their free time unless it negatively impacts their work. Disregarding the restrictions in place for attending outdoor hospitality venues (for example, breaching the Rule of Six), could put the health and safety of colleagues at risk and also damage the reputation of the employer, if seen to condone such behaviour. However, if not sensitively managed, complying with the Rule of Six could result in bullying and discrimination issues, if certain members are staff are deliberately excluded from social events in an attempt to keep numbers down. Employers should also review their client hospitality policies in view of the changed circumstances.
Take a consistent yet sensitive approach to disciplinary issues
Following the easing of restrictions and the first opportunities to socialise after months of isolation, employers may see an increase in short-term absences or employees reporting for work suffering from lack of sleep and hangovers. Health and safety considerations should always be paramount in these circumstances. From a discipline perspective, employers should aim for a consistent approach in dealing with such infractions, while being sensitive to the mental health impact of lengthy periods of lockdown on certain members of staff.
Review annual leave policy in anticipation of increased volume of requests
Now that overnight stays will be permitted in England (albeit limited to a single household or support bubble), and restrictions are being eased in relation to weddings and civil ceremonies, employers are likely to receive an increased number of competing annual leave requests. Employers may choose to review their annual leave policies in advance to address any potential staffing issues, and to ensure that their policies do not indirectly discriminate against certain groups of employees.
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.