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Managing annual leave during coronavirus

Managing annual leave during coronavirus
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Managing annual leave during coronavirus
Sandhya Iyer - HR Dept Sevenoaks Tonbridge Tunbridge Wells by Sandhya Iyer - HR Dept Sevenoaks Tonbridge Tunbridge Wells
Director - HR Dept Sevenoaks Tonbridge Tunbridge Wells

It’s that time of the year when we would all normally be winding down and jetting to some place nice. But these aren’t normal times and – as we saw with quarantine restrictions reintroduced for travellers coming back from Spain – the need to keep the spread of Covid-19 under control means the rules can change at short notice. So where does that leave business owners who are trying to manage staff holidays during these uncertain times? Sandhya Iyer of The HR Dept has pulled together a round up how you can best manage annual leave and staff expectations.

The importance of annual leave for your staff

Annual leave is an earned entitlement, and we have it for a reason. Holidays are a time to relax and unwind, which ensures more efficiency at work, amongst other things. This year is no different; arguably, with all the strains we have been under during lockdown, time off work is even more important than normal.

I always advise my clients to direct their staff to take their holiday entitlement in the current leave year as it has a number of advantages. It ensures staff are refreshed and saves the admin and operative challenges of carrying forward holidays.

However, the current (and changeable) travel restrictions that we are facing, combined with the reluctance of some staff to ‘waste’ their annual leave when they can’t have the holiday they would ideally like, is raising new questions and creating confusion and frustration – for both business owners and their employees. Hopefully, I can answer some of these concerns for you.

The importance of planning annual leave – especially during coronavirus

Holiday planning is something that can, and ideally should, be done well in advance, even during normal times, for the most obvious reasons: it provides clarity for businesses and staff, enabling business operations to be planned most effectively and preventing disappointment as much as possible.

This gives business owners the time to concentrate their energies on all the other unknowns and changing factors that they are having to accommodate, as the extended lockdown in Leicester and the reintroduction of new restrictions in Manchester and the north have demonstrated.

Annual leave during lockdown

As an employer you have the right to enforce annual leave is taken within the current leave year, provided such enforcement is done with ample notice. Where staff have one week accrued untaken annual leave, which you wish for them to take, it is a legal requirement that they are given two weeks’ notice. Such enforcement can come with a clear instruction that leave will lapse and will not carry forward if not taken in the current leave year.  

While this may seem frustrating to some staff, the consolation is that their holiday entitlement replenishes once the new leave year kicks in and having time off at home during lockdown is probably better than losing your annual leave altogether.

Holiday options as lockdown restrictions eased

Nobody knows if, or when, there is going to be a second lockdown or more quarantine restrictions. However, we do know now that quarantine has been imposed for employees returning from oversees holidays in certain countries. These quarantines may make employees unable to work if their job cannot be performed at home.

To remain prepared for the future, it would be prudent to plan as if there will be more quarantine measures, say over the Christmas and New Year period, and clarify your expectations to your staff. Be upfront with your staff on whether you will authorise any overseas holiday, given the impending expectation of quarantines. If allowing staff to travel overseas, explain whether they will be paid if they had to quarantine upon their return. Where staff choose to travel abroad despite the company not authorising such travel, albeit authorising the annual leave, then clarify the possible consequences under your company policy.

It would not be unreasonable to discipline a member of staff who insists on travelling abroad knowing fully that they risk a mandatory quarantine upon returning, however, it is very rare that any member of staff would put themselves and their families in such a situation anyway. You will be in a better position as an employer, provided you have taken the above steps to communicate proactively with your staff.

Staycationing – the simplest option for business owners

I am not going to dwell on staycationing because the repercussions on pay and availability for work after the leave period are minimal. Of course, if a member of staff does fall ill during or just after their annual leave, based on company policy and the timing of notification, the employee would be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if off sick, or full pay if on annual leave.

The NHS Track and Trace Systems

The NHS Track and Trace system is assisting with two main situations:

  1. Where someone has tested positive for the virus, they are required to report it to the Track and Trace system
  2. The Track and Trace system would then contact anyone that person had been in contact with over the past 14 days and require them to get a test and isolate for two weeks, regardless of the outcome of the test. This is obviously worrying for any employer, but I’ll address that further down.

An employer could get contacted by the Track and Trace system if an employee states they were at work or have been to work whilst having contracted symptoms. This is when all the measures an employee has been taking to maintain a COVID-secure workplace with social distancing, is put to test. This will also determine whether the workplace is ordered to shut or whether they can continue to function as normal. Of course, if the employee did contract the virus whilst either at work, or attended work unbeknown to them having contracted the virus, then you would have  a responsibility to sanitise the workplace thoroughly before having staff back at work. This is then followed by specific steps, which you would be better off liaising with a qualified Health and Safety professional for. In general, your regular return to work forms will not suffice for anyone returning to work after a stint of self-isolation or COVID illness. You would need bespoke return to work forms to secure the health and safety of your staff and your own position as an employer. Again, communicating the steps you will be taking in case of such an instance at work, will hold you in good stead in the coming months.

Going back to staff being asked to self-isolate for 14 days if the test negative, the advice is always to follow guidance from the NHS. Where staff who are isolating develop specific symptoms, the clock is reset and they would have to isolate for 10 days if not longer, until symptoms have disappeared. Again, be upfront with staff on pay arrangements during self-isolation and where self-isolating staff are unable to work from home, this will have to be on unpaid leave. SSP or company sick pay kicks in only if they develop symptoms and have tested positive by the Track and Trace system.

As a business owner, you are within your rights to require staff to return to the workplace once symptoms have disappeared, or the isolation period has passed with no symptoms to report. It is understandable that staff will be anxious, hence, partnering with a qualified health and safety specialist puts you in a better situation to secure your workplace and share information, not to mention, alleviate staff fears. It will also make the process of return to work more seamless and stress free.

All this advice is more relevant to staff who are unable to work from home. Where staff can work from home, an employer would need to have strong operational reasons to ask them to return to work on a regular five-day basis. If this is for team liaison and better productivity, then a more reasonable request would be a group get together say twice a week.

Communication: the key to handling this difficult situation as successfully as possible

None of the above are easy decisions for employers or their staff, but the businesses who are coping the best – given all the uncertainties – are those that have planned ahead and engaged in regular and open communication with their staff. Discussing unpaid leave, SSP or unplanned annual leave usage can be awkward conversations to have with your staff, but it is very important that these are clarified in advance and you seek employee agreement where there is a prospect of staff not being paid.

What you definitely want to avoid is for your staff to discover for the very first time that they will not be paid when they notify you they will unexpectedly have to quarantine themselves, whether they have travelled abroad or stayed at home. Even though it may seem obvious that staff can’t expect to be paid if they are unable to show up at work, it doesn’t do any favours for employee morale if they haven’t been made aware of the risk. Significantly, it could also leave you with the prospect of a claim for unlawful deduction of wages.

In my line of work, I always talk about ‘preventing people problems’. Most of my advice and the reasoning behind them is linked to the benefits: you always save time, costs and stress if you plan ahead and thereby prevent people problems. The last few months during the pandemic and resultant lockdown has proven this time and time again for small businesses.

The need to plan for ongoing uncertainty

Looking ahead, one cannot be complacent and assume that business will be free from the threat of this pandemic in the coming year. Rather, business owners would be best advised to adopt a similarly cautious yet flexible approach to this ever-changing situation for the rest of 2020 and into 2021. Until such a time as the threat of the virus has been removed (and who knows when that will be), it makes sense to continue to plan for each of the above situations, and thereby allow your staff to enjoy their breaks with clarity – whether that’s in Polzeath or Phuket.

MEET THE EXPERT

Sandhya Iyer is the director of  the HR Dept , helping small- and medium-sized businesses in Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge and Sevenoaks, Kent.  A graduate member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, she works with business owners, entrepreneurs and managers to prevent people problems and help them get the best from their staff.

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