Returning to your workplace – Know your rights

Before the third national lockdown on January 4th, government advice was to stay home and only go to work if it was critical and could not be done from home.

With the UK slowly easing its way out of restrictions, the law is changing to allow a return to the workplace on April 12th.  With optimism due to the successful rate of the vaccination programme in the UK, many workers will be desperate to leave the house and have the opportunity to mix with both friends and work colleagues. However, research from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute found that a significant number of UK workers are dreading a return to the office, citing discrimination and work inflexibility. The pandemic has also afforded many employees greater flexibility. They don’t want to lose it. There are also concerns around health and anxieties about using public transport.

In this month’s blog, we look at employment law relating to coronavirus and returning to the workplace.

Firstly, suppose you have genuine concerns about returning to the office. In that case, your first step should be to communicate your concerns to your line manager. Equally, it is your employer’s responsibility to advise all staff of the steps they have taken to ensure a safe working environment in line with government guidelines. If your employer has not carried out a proper risk assessment, you cannot be forced to return to the office. Flag any concerns to your union or Health and Safety professional.

If you are not clinically vulnerable, then your employer is in his rights to expect you to return to work. However, suppose you want to continue working for home for some if not all of the time. In that case, both parties should engage in a socially responsible discussion to agree on a way forward.

If your employer tells you that you are now expected to return to the workplace, they are not required to give you any prior notice of this. However, generally, 48 hours would be considered appropriate.

At the very start of the lockdown back in March 2020, approximately 2.5 million people across the UK were told that they much “shield” to protect themselves from the virus. Therefore, if you fall into this category, your employer can continue you furlough you until September 2021, when the current furlough scheme is due to come to an end.

New guidance was issued in December for pregnant women, meaning that employers must carry out a risk assessment before you can return to the office. For those with underlying health issues, the advice is to take a precautionary approach to work, with employers expected to offer working from home, either in their current role or in a different one. If this is not possible, then these workers should be furloughed.

Any refusal to return to the workplace because of anxieties about using public transport may be considered unreasonable. However, conversations should take place to reasonably discuss concerns and provide suggestions. These might include flexible working hours to avoid peak transport times or to use a private taxi.

At the moment, overseas travel is prohibited. However, there are plans to review this soon. Therefore, if you plan an overseas trip and are aware in advance of any quarantine requirements on your return to the UK, you should have a conversation with your employer.

Provided you are not displaying any coronavirus systems and can conduct your job from home, your employer should allow you to work from home for your quarantine period. However, if you are unable to work from home and intend to travel anyway, knowing that you will be required to self-isolate, your employer is well within their rights to force this to be taken as paid or unpaid leave.

While this is a difficult time for businesses, you still have employment rights. If you have any concerns about returning to the workplace, you should talk to your employer. If you feel that proper risk assessments have not been undertaken, you should consult your Health and Safety professional or Union. If you don’t have one, the Citizens Advice Bureau is a helpful referral. Finally, for help and support, you can also reach out to the arbitration service ACAS on 0300 123 1100.