How has working life changed following the COVID-19 pandemic?

In March 2020, many of us were told to work from home, or even furloughed, with little idea of when life might return to normal. This was an unfamiliar concept to those used to the traditional 9-5 routine. So, two years on from the start of the pandemic, how have employers and employees adapted to the new ways of working?

Flexible working  

Many employees have been asked to return to the office for the first time in two years. Having enjoyed the benefits of hybrid or remote working, this has come as a shock to the system for some. Understandably, this has led to a significant rise in flexible working requests since the pandemic. Particularly for women with childcare responsibilities, flexible working can be an easier way of working and something employees may wish to continue. For some employers, this will work fine. If employees have worked successfully from home for the last two years, why can this not continue? On the other hand, some employers may wish for their staff to return to the office to increase productivity. 

Although there is no obligation on an employer to agree to all flexible working requests, it is imperative that employers understand how to handle flexible working requests and consider the legal risks associated with them. Employers must be particularly aware of women seeking flexible work for childcare reasons. Previous cases have shown that they may have protection from indirect sex discrimination, as was the case in a recent Employment Tribunal case.  

Mandatory vaccinations 

For those working in the NHS and social care, further changes have occurred following the pandemic. In late 2021, the Government stated that all staff who have direct patient contact are required to have the COVID-19 vaccination to continue in employment. The only exceptions being where a person is under 18, is clinically exempt, has no face-to-face contact with service users, or where the regulated activity is part of a ‘shared lives agreement’. However, earlier this year, rumours of a government U-turn on mandatory COVID-19 vaccination requirements had begun to circulate. The requirement is no longer considered proportionate, primarily due to the risk of needing emergency care or admission to hospital with Omicron being approximately half of that for Delta. Not to mention, the potentially detrimental impact of the workforce in NHS and social care. The government’s position remains undetermined; however, it seems likely that vaccinations will not become mandatory.  

Vaccination Policies 

Employers may be considering a vaccination policy to protect their staff. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 obliges employers to take reasonable steps to reduce any workplace risks; this duty gives employers justification for encouraging their employees to be vaccinated to protect themselves and everyone else at the workplace.  

The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (‘RIDDOR’) strengthens employer’s encouragement of vaccination. However, employers must consider possible discrimination claims that may arise. For example, some vaccines may not be suitable for workers with allergies or suppressed immune systems, and some workers may refuse for mental health reasons, giving rise to potential disability discrimination claims. Similarly, workers with strong religious or philosophical beliefs may object to the vaccine on moral or religious grounds, giving rise to potential religious discrimination claims.  

Employers cannot require employees to be vaccinated unless they work in sector where a legal requirement has been introduced. The best way is to inform, encourage and educate.  

Statutory Sick Pay and Isolation   

Staff were previously entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if they could not work because they were self-isolating, for example if they had coronavirus symptoms or have tested positive. 

However, in England, from 24th March 2022, staff will no longer be entitled to SSP for self-isolation, until their fourth day of sickness. This has understandably caused employers to worry, as people are more likely to attend work whilst they are infectious, and therefore spread the virus around the workforce. Therefore, employers are more likely to allow employees to work from home if they are well enough to work. Alternatively, if the employee cannot work from home and has proof of a positive COVID-19 test, the employer has the discretion to pay their usual hours.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the labour market as we knew it. The disruption meant many businesses couldn’t operate in the usual way and therefore had to adjust to continue to provide their products and services to customers. Whilst some adjustments were temporary, others have remained and will continue in the years to come.  

The Government is likely to make further announcements in the coming weeks, particularly concerning mandatory vaccinations for NHS staff. Therefore, it is important for employers to keep updated on the changes and how this may affect their business and workers.  

Should you require advice in relation to any of the matters contained within this article, or any other employment law / HR issue, then please contact our Head of Employment, Steven Davies, or 0151 318 5727. 

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