On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation ("WHO") declared the novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 ("COVID-19") outbreak a pandemic. As of today, the global number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has surpassed 160,000 in over 100 countries around the world. In Malaysia, 428 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported as of 15 March 2020.
The aviation, hospitality and tourism industries worldwide are currently facing a huge disruption in their businesses and the high degree of uncertainty on what can be expected has undoubtedly raised various alarming financial concerns. We have, in this brief few months since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, received numerous enquiries from employers pertaining to the following issues:
- Employer's inability to pay employees' salary in a timely manner;
- Increase in sick leave applications;
- The potential risk of employees malingering;
- Possibility of a pay cut;
- Reduction in work to be given to employees which may result in redundancy; and
- Possibility of retrenchment.
In this article, we briefly address the rising concerns of employers and offer practical guidance to prevent the spread of the virus at the workplace.
Contingency and Business Continuity Plans
As the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 increases rapidly, many health experts predict that the deadly outbreak may last until the end of 2020. As such, it is important for employers to develop contingency and business continuity plans to ensure the sustainability of their businesses amidst this virus outbreak.
A strategic and effective business continuity plan should ensure (i) that the employees' risk of exposure to COVID-19 is minimised, (ii) that the risk of the organisation or workplace as a medium of transmission of COVID-19 is minimised, (iii) that the business or daily operations of the organisation can still continue in the event any employees are infected or are being quarantined or isolated as a precautionary measure, and (iv) continuity of the business by having an alternative arrangement with their clients, contractors or suppliers.
Businesses with cash flow problems may propose voluntary unpaid leave to their employees or provide alternatives to the affected employees, such as an interim reduction in salary or temporary cessation of employment to reduce overhead costs. Employers are advised to arrange meetings with affected employees to provide full and frank disclosure on the company's financial standing.
Hiring new employees increases overheads. As such, employers should defer any plans for new hires during this period.
Employers may also propose the following non-exhaustive list of an interim reduction in cost:
- Reduction or prohibition in overtime;
- Deduction in employee benefits such as travelling or telephone allowances;
- Cancellation of all company events such as annual dinners or team building activities.
It is pertinent to note that the above measures should only be carried out upon communication with affected employees and obtaining the affected employees' written consent.
Employers should also ensure that their clients, contractors or suppliers are well aware of the implementation of any appropriate business continuity plans within the organisation, manage their expectations and provide alternative arrangements, if necessary.
Require Sick Employees to Stay Home
Employees who have symptoms of fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty in breathing should be required to stay at home until they fully recover.
Employees who appear to have symptoms of fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty in breathing upon arrival to work should be required to go home immediately.
If an employee is confirmed to be COVID-19 positive, the employer should immediately inform other employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace and advise them to refer to the Ministry of Health's ("MOH") guidelines on how to conduct a risk assessment to evaluate their health status.
If an employee is facing the potential risk of being a carrier of the COVID-19 virus, employers should immediately compel such employee to be self-quarantined.
Employees with Sick Family Members
Employers should advise employees to promptly disclose to their employers in the event their family members are tested positive with COVID-19. The affected employees should then be compelled to refer to the MOH's guidelines on how to conduct a risk assessment to evaluate their health status. Immediate self-quarantine should also be imposed on the affected employees.
Implement Flexible Work Arrangements
The COVID-19 outbreak is primarily spread by human transmission. As such, employers may review and consider adopting the following measures to minimise the risk of transmission at the workplace.
Employers may divide their employees into two teams and implement a rotation of teams to work from home on a weekly basis. For example, employees may be divided into Team A and Team B. Team A works from home on every even week, while Team B works in the office and vice versa. As COVID-19 is known to be transmitted from person-to-person, physical segregation between the teams may decrease the risk of infection between teams.
As a precautionary measure, employers should exercise daily temperature screening for employees and visitors before they enter the office premises.
Employers should avoid sending employees to areas where COVID-19 outbreak is severe, i.e. China, Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran.
Employees and visitors should be compelled to declare if they have travelled to affected regions, i.e. China, Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran within 14 days prior to arrival in Malaysia.
Employees who have returned from an area where COVID-19 is spreading should monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days and take their temperature twice a day. If they develop any symptoms, they should be advised to self-quarantine and contact the local public health department to disclose the details of their recent travel and symptoms.
We are well aware that the issue of confidentiality may limit the employer's flexibility in imposing any work-from-home policies. Should this be a concern, we suggest the following options that employers may consider.
In order to implement an effective work-from-home policy, employers may install work-tracking software in the company's gadgets provided to the employees to record transactions or work done by the employees. Alternatively, employers may request for reports of work done from the employees on a weekly basis.
Employers may also require their employees who wish to work from home to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to ensure that confidential information or tasks to be carried out by the respective employees are fully protected.
Implement Flexible Sick Leave Policies
During the COVID-19 outbreak, employers have to ensure that the companies' sick leave policies are temporarily adjusted to be flexible and consistent with the employees' contract of employment. This includes ensuring that existing laws and policies are communicated to employees.
Employees who are subject to the Employment Act 1955, if infected with COVID-19, are entitled to paid sick leave in accordance to their length of service with the employer as follows:-
- 14 days: For employees who have worked for less than 2 years;
- 18 days: For employees who have worked for more than 2 years, but less than 5 years;
- 22 days: For employees who have worked for more than 5 years.
In the event the affected employee is hospitalised due to COVID-19, they are also entitled to an aggregate of 60 days paid sick leave in one calendar year, as may be certified by a registered medical practitioner or medical officer.
For employees who are not subject to the Employment Act 1955, employers should take note that in the event such employees are on sick leave due to COVID-19, the employees' sick leave benefits are governed by the terms and conditions of the contract of employment or the company policies. Any adjustment to sick leave policies should be communicated to the employees.
Some employers may advise their employees who have returned from countries that are experiencing serious COVID-19 outbreaks or are at risk of contracting COVID-19, to work from home as a precautionary measure. Under these circumstances, such employees should be paid their full salaries.
If for instance, an employee chooses not to work for fear of contracting COVID-19 when commuting to work by way of public transport or from colleagues in the workplace, the employer is advised to communicate with the affected employee to find out the underlying issues and address the employee's concerns. Under these circumstances, the employer may offer the employee the option to take a period of paid annual leave, or to work remotely from home or to take a short period of unpaid leave to avoid any possible risk of being infected with COVID-19. As an employer, you have the prerogative to decide what is best for your business without compromising the wellbeing of your employees. It is also pertinent to note that an employee who refuses to attend work without a reasonable excuse can be subject to disciplinary action. It is recognised under the law that absenteeism without permission and consent of the employer is a serious misconduct that may justify termination of employment.
Practice Good Habits
COVID-19 is transmitted primarily through droplets when someone who carries the virus coughs, sneezes or exhales. These droplets may land on nearby surfaces, such as doorknobs or tabletops and the next person who touches the contaminated surfaces is at risk of infection. Studies have also shown that anyone standing within one meter of a person with COVID-19 may catch it by breathing in droplets coughed out, sneezed or exhaled by the infected person.
Hence, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, employers should encourage their employees to pay attention to their personal hygiene and keep the workplace clean. We would suggest the employer conduct at least one briefing to remind and urge the employees to observe and comply with certain practices at the workplace.
Sick employees ought to be required to stay home. However, if their attendance is required within the office premises, they should put on their face masks or cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It is also recommended that employers provide covered bins so that used or soiled tissues can be properly disposed of.
Employers should emphasise hand hygiene and advise their employees to wash their hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. It is recommended that employers put up notices or posters in washrooms on correct handwashing techniques.
Employers are also encouraged to provide alcohol-based hand sanitizers in multiple locations within the office premises to encourage hand hygiene.
Employees should be advised to regularly clean or sanitize their respective workstations, including their desks, telephones and keyboards.
Toilets in the office premises should be kept clean and dry at all times.
Employers should sanitize common areas, especially the pantries, walkways and meeting rooms every day.
It is advisable that employers should defer or cancel large-scale events, conferences or gatherings. Should they decide to proceed with such events, they should take necessary precautions i.e.temperature screening, providing face-masks and hand sanitizers.
As we are battling a global pandemic, each and every one of us plays an important role in preventing and controlling the spread of COVID-19 in our community and workplace. Adopting and implementing precautionary measures and strategic business continuity planning during this outbreak can protect your employees and your business.
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.