HomeOpinion & AnalysisEmployers, employees’ obligations during COVID-19 pandemic

Employers, employees’ obligations during COVID-19 pandemic

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By Emmanuel Zvada

EMPLOYERS are different, we understand, but during this pandemic there are employers who need a third eye for them to uphold proper conduct which safeguard their employees.

Some employers can recklessly and deliberately fail to protect employees against exposure to coronavirus which results in breach of employer’s duty of care through gross negligence. Businesses are required to comply with health and safety legislation. Failure to comply will result in such businesses facing criminal liability.

Can COVID-19 be transmitted at the workplace?

As the number of reported cases of the novel coronavirus continues to rise, employers are increasingly confronted with the possibility of an outbreak at the workplace.

I think vaccination against the coronavirus will in time result in an end to the pandemic, but in the meantime all sections of society including businesses and employers must play a role in stopping the spread of the disease.

COVID-19 spreads in various ways and exposure can occur at the workplace, while travelling to work, during work-related travel to an area with potential transmission.

Employer’s obligation

Employers are obligated to maintain a safe and healthy work environment for employees, are also subject to a number of legal requirements to protect workers. For example, employers must comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Employers must ensure that the workplace is safe and without risk to health. All employers must ensure that their employees are be provided with adequate protective clothing so that they are not exposed to the pandemic.

Due to the way COVID-19 spreads, it may be difficult for one to claim, let alone, prove that they contracted the virus while at work.

However, employers are generally reminded of their statutory and common law duty of making the work environment safe so that employee can provide their labour in a safe environment.

Employers should instruct workers who are infected, unvaccinated workers who have had close contact with someone who tested positive to COVID-19 and all workers with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home to prevent or reduce the risk of transmission of the virus that causes disease.

If an employee is infected by COVID–19 at work, what must an employer do?

The employer should notify the health authorities of the development. The employer must then direct anyone who was in contact with the infected employee to be in self-isolation at home so as not to affect others.

After such a reported incident, the employer must have the premises thoroughly sanitised.

According to Article 16 of Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No 155), employers have the overall responsibility of ensuring that employees have protective and preventive clothing to minimise occupational risks.

If the employer fails to do this, he may be liable for compensation of the employee if the employee can prove that the employer was responsible for his illness (including COVID-19-related illness)

Employee rights during COVID-19

Employees or their representatives have a right to information on measures taken by the employer to ensure occupational safety and health, and the right to be trained in occupational health and safety issues.

Let’s say the employee is affected by the virus, he or she is entitled to apply for sick leave which is supported by a certificate signed by a registered medical practitioner.

The employee should immediately notify the health authorities and his/her employer through professional communication channels.

The employee is entitled up to three months sick leave on full pay. If an employee has used up these three months in any one-year period, the employee may apply for further sick leave of up to three months on half pay.

However, at the end of such sick leave period, the employer is entitled to terminate the employment contract.

Sickness prevention at the workplace

Whenever a communicable disease outbreak is likely, employers required to take precautions to keep the disease from spreading at the workplace.

It is recommended that employers have a written policy and response plan that covers communicable diseases that can be transmitted at the workplace.

More so, employers can require employees to stay at home if they have signs or symptoms of a communicable disease that poses the threat of transmission at the workplace.

When possible, employers can consider allowing employees to work remotely and they can require employees to provide medical documentation so that they can return to work.

COVID-19 and business continuity

Business continuity is the capability of an organisation to continue delivering the products or services at acceptable and normal levels following a disruptive incident. In this case most businesses are currently experiencing significant disruption to their operations due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Workplaces should develop action plans to prevent and mitigate COVID-19 as part of the business continuity plan.

Workers and their representatives should be consulted and should participate in the development, monitoring and updating of the workplace COVID-19 business continuity plan.

Employers should engage with workers and their representatives to determine how to implement multi-layered interventions to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Even though vaccination against COVID-19 will in time bring the current pandemic to an end, it is important to draw up or update crisis contingent plans that will help prepare them should any such events occur in the future.

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