Working under COVID-19: 10 things to know
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels.
Under the current COVID-19 pandemic, working conditions have been altered as many people were forced to either work from home or suspend operations during a shutdown on non-essential activities.
As the country continues to re-open on a phased basis, here are several issues for workers to consider while working during COVID-19, courtesy UWI lecturer and employment and labour law consultant, Dr Jamille Broome:
1. Can employees be forced to utilize leave?
Employers may suggest this as an option, but only employees can decide how to utilize leave entitlements.
2. Can pay and hours be reduced?
Employers cannot unilaterally reduce employees’ pay or hours of work without consent - a pandemic does not preclude this legal obligation.
In order for these contractual alterations to be done legally, employers must first consult with employees in order to give them (employees) the option to accept or reject the new terms and/or conditions.
It is advisable to have this in writing and signed by both parties.
(Photo by Norma Mortenson from Pexels)
3. How much of a reduction in pay and/or hours is legally allowed?
Generally, there is no legal limit for reducing pay; however, reducing pay below the minimum wage remains illegal.
The decision to reduce pay and/or hours, and by how much, must be justified by the scale of revenue losses and the ongoing operational requirements of the business.
For example, a supermarket that remains open throughout the “lockdown” period will have a difficult time justifying these reductions, compared to a restaurant restricted to take-out only.
4. Are employees required to work the same hours for reduced pay?
A reduction in pay during the COVID-19 pandemic is premised upon the expectation that there is a decrease in the required amount of work being performed due to restrictions on business operations and stay-at-home orders. Therefore, reduced pay should correlate with reduced hours.
5. Will employers have to eventually recompense employees for reduced payments when operations fully resume?
Whether or not there is an agreement for “back pay” at a later date, this should be clearly stated in a written agreement signed by both parties.
6. What happens if an employee rejects the new terms?
If the proposed terms and/or conditions are rejected by an employee, the employer may choose to layoff, retrench, or terminate the employee.
7. What is the difference between layoffs and retrenchment?
Layoffs are a temporary cessation of work whereby employees are placed on unpaid leave for a short period.
Retrenchment is a form of termination that occurs when there are more employees than available work (referred to as a ‘redundancy’); consequently, retrenched employees receive notice and severance payments in accordance with the provisions of the Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act, 1985.
8. What are the health and safety obligations for employers and employees under COVID-19?
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Act 2004, as amended, employers, are required to - as far as reasonably practicable - ensure the safety, health and welfare of all employees while at work. Conversely, employees must comply with the safety measures put in place by employers.
9. Can essential workers refuse to work due to fear of contracting the coronavirus?
Employees may refuse to work, but will most likely not be paid for the period of absence unless there is an agreement for leave entitlement to be utilised.
10. What are the avenues of redress for employees?
Employees should only seek advice from trade unions or attorneys who specialise in employment and/or labour law.
For more information, you can reach Dr Broome via email at Jamille85@msn.com.