Covid-19: Can employers force employees back to work?

Staff returning to work after Covid-19 lockdown

Unless working from home forms part of an employee’s contract, an employer is able to tell an employee to return to their normal place of work. However, the employer should ensure that all the relevant Covid-19 risk assessments have been carried out and special measures are in place to ensure the health and safety of the workforce.

What employers need to know when asking employees to return to the work premises

  • If an employee raises legitimate health and safety concerns about the practices in the workplace, an employer should be careful about dismissing them without first obtaining legal advice. If an employee is dismissed or suffers a detriment due to raising a health and safety complaint (which may be considered whistleblowing), the employee may be able to bring a legitimate claim.
  • Employers may find that employees start making requests for flexible working. An employer should ensure they deal with any such requests properly and that if the request is declined, the reason falls within one of the eight business reasons why an employer is able to reject such an application. Again, employers should be cautious about causing detriments to these employees or dismissing them following a flexible working request as this could give rise to standalone claims.
  • Employers should also be mindful of potential discrimination claims if an employee is disabled or has childcare responsibilities. Careful consideration should be given to any potential claims that could arise and an employer should seek to protect itself from any discrimination claims and if unsure, legal advice should be sought. For example, if an employee is disabled, an employer should consider obtaining an Occupational Health Assessment to properly determine an employee’s ability to return to work.

However, given Boris Johnson’s announcement yesterday (22 September 2020), employees are more likely to raise issues with being in the office. Provided your employees can work safely, they can still be asked to attend the work premises.

If an employee refuse to return to work

The employer should take the appropriate action if an employee refuses to return to the premises without any good reason, which could include starting an unauthorised absence process. An employer should ensure it is following a fair process when making the decision to dismiss an employee and appropriate legal advice should be sought.

If you require Employment Law advice

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