Returning to Work in the Heat of COVID-19: What are Your Worker’s Rights?

Worker’s rights during COVID-19 may seem a little confusing, but we’ve got all your questions answered, right here…

The Coronavirus has left many questions hanging in the air about worker’s rights. For those who are being asked to return to the workplace, many may be questioning their legal entitlements in these situations.

For those who feel anxious to return due to genuine health and safety concerns, communicating with your employer is key, as we will see in this article. However, it’s not always as easy as this, and some employers may be resistant to compromising with you. In cases like this, seeking employment law help from legal experts may be required.

For more information about your rights as a worker, and for some tips on what to do if you’ve been asked to return to the workplace, you came to the right place. To help you decide if legal action is for you, read on…

The Three Key Tests Before Encouraging Employees to Return to Work

Before anything else is agreed by the employer and the employees, the company must make a decision based on three recommended questions. The three key questions your employer should be asking themselves are:

1.     Is it Essential for People to Return to the Workplace?

First and foremost, employers must ask themselves if work can continue at a productive rate with employees working from home. If so, is there really any need for them to return?

Alternatively, there may be people who aren’t able to work from home, and have been on furlough for this entire situation. In these cases, employers should be questioning whether their work is essential for the successful running of the business. If not, perhaps these individuals can stay on the Government’s Job Retention Scheme for longer?

2.     Is it Safe for People to Return to the Workplace?

It’s also paramount that your employer can guarantee that the workplace will be sufficiently safe for your return. As part of your worker’s rights, employers have a duty of care to ensure the workplace is safe, through conducting risk assessments.

With this in mind, it’s suggested that employers gradually bring staff back bit by bit. This way, new health and safety measures can be implemented effectively, and the company can ensure that they are able to function safely with a larger workforce back in the building.

3.     Is the Return to Work Mutually Agreed?

Employers need to be certain that they’re communicating their wishes with their employees. This also includes making sure to provide the workforce with the dialogue to share their thoughts and feelings too.

Peoples’ concerns should be listened to, before any rash decisions are made. This will allow the employers to suss out whether people are physically able to return to work, what with:

  • Ongoing caring responsibilities that have fallen on many peoples’ shoulders during this time;
  • Whether commuting safely will be possible;
  • If there are vulnerable people living in any of the staff’s households, who may be at risk with your employee’s returns.

This way, they can be certain that they know every potential avenue for infection, and can decide whether this is potentially dangerous. Nobody can make a fully informed decision without all the information, and these conversations will help with that.

The Legal Restrictions of Returning to Work Post-COVID

The above questions an employer should ask themselves are certainly subject to their own discretion. However, without these restrictions, or even with them, employees may still feel anxious to head back into the office. With this in mind, as an anxious employee being told to head back in soon, what are your legal rights for this?

Getting Written Consent from Employees

As we’ve seen, getting consent from employees, and mutually agreeing on a compromise, is one of the most important elements of this whole situation. Therefore, it is advised that employers are sure to get written consent from their team for any changes in their work situation.

It should be noted that, even if employers require you to head back into the office immediately, you are entitled to a period of notice before this comes into effect. This is especially important for those who have to make alternative care arrangements for their children, for example.

Communication is Key

It’s also really important that employers consult with their staff to ensure they feel as comfortable as possible with this new transition. Ultimately, it’s really down to the employer’s discretion as to how much detail they go into this. But, the more you communicate with your employees, the more likely they will be to trust you, and the more inclined they may be to return to the workplace.

Ensure Health and Safety is Updated

The government have put numerous measures in place to ensure the safety of the community. The same goes for the workplace community. With this in mind, experts in the field are suggesting that employers be sure to conduct a proper risk assessment before allowing anybody back into building, including:

  • An identification of the work activity or situations which might transmit the virus
  • People who are most at risk
  • The likelihood that somebody in the workforce may be exposed
  • What actions can be put in place to avoid and control these risks

Some of the most important health and safety features the government are suggesting include temperature sensors, a focus on cleaning, desk space distancing, proper ventilation, and sometimes even PPE. Otherwise, some other measures employers must adhere to include:

  • Making sure that social distancing, of one metre or more, can be upheld within the office
  • Training staff to ensure they follow the new health and safety regulations
  • Ensuring frequent cleaning of door handles, utensils, and work surfaces go ahead
  • Putting in place one-way systems to minimise contact as much as possible

Do You Have the Right to Refuse Returning to the Workplace?

Even with all this in place, there may be staff who still remain anxious about their return. What’s really important to remember is that, if you genuinely feel that yourself or someone around you is in danger by returning to the office, things can be done.

In these cases, the employee should address their concerns with their employer, as this is probably the easiest way for things to change. Then, if your employer refuses to alter their approach to health and safety, you may be able to refuse your return to the workplace. If you can prove that you are in sufficient danger by returning, you can refuse to return under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

Under this act, every employee has the right not to suffer any detriment if they leave, or refuse to attend, their workplace, as long as they believe it to be unsafe or dangerous. This counts, whether the employer disagrees or not, as long as the employee has a reasonable right to believe they’re compromised. This could include someone who isn’t heading to work in order to protect a vulnerable person in their household.

However, this is a tricky business, as a danger like COVID-19 is often subject to debate. In most cases, the employee cannot refuse reasonable instruction to head back to work unless they have a good reason.

In terms of caring responsibilities, this is a whole other situation, so be sure to do your research on this, and what options are available.

What to do if You Are Anxious About Returning to the Workplace

For some, there may be no imminent danger to returning back to work. However, that doesn’t mean that you won’t be anxious about your return. Because of this, here are some steps to help you combat the situation:

  • Don’t just not turn up to work, if you are requested to do so. This is possibly the worst course of action for you; be sure to voice your thoughts.
  • Be sure of your reasoning for why you don’t want to return, whether it be to do with the dangers of public transport, the worry of putting someone else at risk, or the detriment to your mental health. Whatever it is, do this in writing, if possible.
  • Make it clear how well you’ve been doing working from home, with proof of your productivity where you can.
  • Ask your employer about their risk assessment, and the health and safety measures they’ll be implementing.
  • If you think your employer is flouting their health and safety obligations, you could raise this as a public interest disclosure, making you a whistleblower. Or, you could even alert the Health and Safety Authority or your trade union.
  • If you have a disability, or are a member of a certain racial group that puts you at greater risk, you are protected under the Equality Act 2010 to ask for reasonable adjustments for your return to work to be made.
  • If you are dismissed because you have refused to return to work, you can claim for unfair dismissal.
  • See if you can use your statutory leave to maintain childcare.

At the end of the day, communicating your concerns to your employer is the best thing you can do in this situation. Who knows, they may not have even thought about your concerns, and may be happy to listen and take note. Compromises are always available in these trying times, so be sure to discuss the situation before making any decisions.

Know Your Workers Rights

Here, we’ve detailed your rights for returning to work during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, it’s important that you voice your opinions and worries, and we’re sure you and your employer can come to an arrangement together. But, if not, taking action is well within your rights as a worker, so seeking legal advice may be your answer.

If you’ve had any experience dealing with your return to the office, and it didn’t go quite to plan, leave any comments down below. We want to hear your stories about how you dealt with the situation, so we can all stay informed.