On 30 January, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the outbreak of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) as an International Public Health Emergency, in accordance with International Health Regulations. This situation has generated numerous doubts regarding its possible scope, not only in the health field, but in others as important as the economic or labour fields. Regarding this last issue, we wish to outline the fundamental things that any company and worker should be aware of.

Possible effects in the labour field

In the event of a pandemic in Spain, non-attendance at work will depend on the magnitude of the pandemic in terms of the number of cases that occur and the measures imposed by the health authorities.

To avoid situations of uncertainty, on 26/02/2020, the Social Security General Directorate issued criterion 2/2020, which establishes that workers who, after contact with the virus and following the application of the protocols established by the health authorities, may find themselves in a situation of preventive isolation, will be considered to be on sick leave due to common illness, until it is finally determined whether or not they are affected by the illness. During this situation they will be entitled to the corresponding benefits, provided that they meet the requirements and conditions laid down by the regulations of the regime in which these workers are included.

Occupational risk prevention measures

Article 14 of the Spanish Law on the Prevention of Occupational Risks (LPRL) imposes a duty on companies to ensure the safety and health of their workers in all work-related aspects. In turn, Article 21 of the LPRL empowers employees to interrupt their activity and leave or not come to work in case of serious and imminent risk to their health.

For the time being, and in the absence of other measures to contain the virus, companies should avoid having their employees travel on business to countries that are affected or at risk. In fact, workers may refuse to travel to countries at risk and the company will not be able to sanction them for this, as it is an issue that directly affects their health. Most companies consider airports as a major source of contagion, and are in fact limiting business travel that is not strictly necessary.

In the case of workers temporarily posted to high-risk countries, it is advisable to analyse them individually on a case-by-case basis and to arrange for their return as soon as possible, provided that there are no limitations due to isolation or impediment to travel.

The person in charge of occupational risk prevention in each company must disseminate the Ministry of Health’s protective measures or those established in each company:

– Carry out frequent hand hygiene with soap and water or alcoholic solutions

– Avoid close contact with people who show signs of a respiratory condition, such as a cough or sneeze. Some companies are recommending that their employees stay at home and telework.

– Cover your mouth and nose with your forearm in case of sneezing or coughing.

– More thorough measures of hygiene and cleanliness in work spaces.

– For the time being, there are no special precautions with animals or food.

As an additional prevention measure for employees, some companies are asking those who have recently been in a country at risk, either for work or personal reasons, to undertake a voluntary two-week period of isolation in their own home, teleworking during that time.

It is important to review international health insurance cover for displaced workers, as the vast majority exclude from their cover any assistance, compensation or expenses in the event of epidemics.

Aspects to take into account in the company’s Contingency Plan

It is important, in view of the unpredictable situation of the pandemic and its consequences, to establish a Contingency Plan in the company. It would be enough to update the one established at the time of Influenza-A outbreak. Otherwise, these would be the main aspects, among others:

1.           Define precisely the functions that in each company are considered essential and absolutely necessary to maintain productivity at acceptable levels in the event of a pandemic or declaration of a quarantine or isolation zone: essential services, number of employees required to attend to them and procedure to ensure a minimum level of services.

2.           Define in which positions remote work or teleworking can be implemented. This should be agreed between the company and the workers, and ensure that the employees, if necessary, could work from home and have the necessary means to do so.

3.           Appoint a committee or person responsible for all this planning.

4.           Inform and divulge the indications of the health authorities to the staff on a regular and updated basis, as well as the Contingency Plan.

5.           With regard to travel, meetings, etc. whenever possible, evaluate a videoconferencing system to avoid travel and contacts.

What if working from home weren’t viable?

Teleworking may not always be feasible, for a number of reasons:

– Some employees refuse to work from home

– The employee or company does not have sufficient means of connection to enable teleworking

– The position is not susceptible to remote work or teleworking

In these cases, by agreement with the employee, the following could be established on an exceptional basis:

Advance vacation period (paid)

Compensation of excess hours performed (paid)

Establish a bag of hours for the employee to carry out when the situation ends, even if it is on a different schedule than the current one (paid)

Special leave without pay (unpaid)

Temporary surplus (unpaid)

What if the company couldn’t stay in business?

In certain cases (lack of supplies or components, temporary disability of most or all of the employees due to infection or compulsory isolation, etc.), and depending on the duration of the closure, losses or the impossibility of reopening within a reasonable period, the company could be temporarily suspended or even have its employment contracts terminated due to force majeure. Regardless of the number of employees affected, in these cases the company must communicate the situation to the Labour Authority (which must ascertain the facts) and at the same time inform the workers’ representatives.

LAST MINUTE: The Directorate General of Labour is working to draw up a protocol on the labour measures that companies can take if they are affected by this disease and is collaborating with the Labour and Social Security Inspectorate to draw up an operational criterion on how to tackle the problem. When the time comes, special protective measures could be established so that in cases of Temporary Employment Regulation Files the time spent on unemployment benefits is not considered taken.

Work is also under way with the National Institute for Safety and Health at Work, in close collaboration with the Ministry of Health, to produce a guide to the personal protective equipment that workers have to wear.

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