Still going in to work? Your employment questions answered

James Kidd, a partner based in the Norwich office of Mills and Reeve (inset) on employee rights for

James Kidd, a partner based in the Norwich office of Mills and Reeve (inset) on employee rights for key workers and self-employers. Picture: Mills & Reeve/Su Holidays - Credit: Mills & Reeve/Su Holidays

The UK has gone into lockdown – but many staff are confused about where they stand when it comes to going to work and what happens when they get there.

NHS staff are front-line key workers

NHS staff are front-line key workers - Credit: Getty Images

The government’s current advice to employers is: “Encourage staff to work from home wherever possible.” However, this does not include key workers such as NHS staff, supermarket employees and postal workers.

Here James Kidd, a partner based in the Norwich office of Mills and Reeve, discusses the legalities of the situation.

• I’m not a key worker, but I work in a key industry. I have been told I still have to go to work, even though I am not critical to the key function.

According to current government guidance, that is correct.

Postal workers are also key staff identified by government. Photo: ROYAL MAIL.

Postal workers are also key staff identified by government. Photo: ROYAL MAIL. - Credit: Archant

Your employer will be expected to ensure that the guidance on social distancing can be observed – you should not be expected to come within two meters of other workers.

In addition, your workplace should follow other government guidance such as the regular cleaning of touch points, advising staff to wash hands and self-isolate if they have symptoms.

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However, government guidance changes frequently, and you and your employer will need to make sure you stay up to date.

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• I am a seasonal worker in a key industry. The season is now over, but I am being told to come in to do other jobs.

Your rights will depend on the terms of your contract.

If you are only employed for a season, then your consent will be required to work beyond that (and you should be paid for the work that you do).

Furthermore, normally your consent would be required if you are asked to do something significantly different from your normal duties, but your contract may give your employer the right to re-deploy you in these circumstances.

The other way of looking at that is that if you are being offered work, that may be more valuable than benefits (notwithstanding that is not what you’ normally do’).

• I’m a key worker in manufacturing of an essential item. We don’t wear any protective gear, is that legal?

An employer is expected to safeguard the health and safety of its workers “so far as is reasonably practicable”.

In this situation an employer would be expected to conduct a risk assessment, and if the job can’t be done safely in the current circumstances, we’d expect workers to be sent home.

But bear in mind that an employer isn’t expected completely to eliminate any risk, as that would be impossible in most workplaces.

In the current crisis, much depends on the degree of risk that each individual worker would be exposed to if they were to catch the virus, and an employer would therefore be expected to take more stringent steps to protect workers who are vulnerable (including pregnant women).

It is also worth keeping an eye on the latest government guidance - currently no specific guidance has been issued to address this situation, but that may change.

MORE: Personal Finance: What does the coronavirus mean for my pension?

• I am self-employed, is there any compensation yet for lost work?

Significant enhancements to the benefits systems have been announced for the duration of the crisis, but as yet no income support for people who are self-employed comparable to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for employees.

However the government is actively considering the options and we expect an announcement soon. There is a petition calling for support for self-employed individuals.

• I’m a freelancer and some of my work has been cancelled before it is live, what are my rights?

It will depend on the terms of your contract.

Some contracts will provide a minimum level of compensation if your work has been cancelled at short notice, others won’t.

In most common situations, the law doesn’t impose any minimum notice period or compensation in this situation.

You can always ask however.

Some specific support may be made available for freelancers in this situation, but nothing has been announced yet.

You may have a breach of contract claim for the balance of a fixed period of work (if there was one). Just bear in mind that the courts/tribunals are not operating efficiently right now so any redress will be a long time coming (not helpful to hear I know, but just managing expectations).