How To: Handle H.R. During The PandemicPosted in : How To... with Dr. Gerry McMahon on 30 March 2020
The corona crisis is currently causing considerable consternation around the world. It is also apparent that the fallout therefrom is likely to be both long and painful. Courtesy of this crisis, many HR practitioners are now grappling with a changing context, one that places them centre-stage in the search for answers to the myriad workplace-related questions that are provoked by the pandemic.
Accordingly, this guide attempts to acknowledge some of the positive and progressive moves being made to address the fallout, whilst earmarking 5 key areas warranting HR action or policy initiatives designed to minimise that fallout.
The Positives and the Practicalities
For many, including HR professionals, the lure of their eventual profession was originally prompted by a desire to ‘help people’. Naïve or not, this aspiration was wonderfully well reflected recently when the ‘Ireland On Call’ campaign elicited about 50,000 responses from health care workers, who are willing to take the risk to return to work to help cope with the pandemic. It is also acknowledged that the cohorts currently working on the front-line are now going far beyond the call of duty in their efforts to stem this virus crisis.
Even on the industrial relations frontline, despite some reservations, the trade union Staff Panel National Joint Council has responded positively to the Health Service Executive’s (HSE) requirements for coping with Covid19. For example, the Industrial Relations News recently noted that ‘there is no indication that they will do anything other than cooperate with the policies and procedures detailed by HSE HR’ in their updated documents and circulars. Enabling such co-operation, the HSE has confirmed that it remains committed to national agreements concerning the longstanding thorny topic of outsourcing ‘in normal circumstances’, with normal agreed arrangements - as per the Public Service Stability Agreement - applying ‘when this crisis passes’.
It is also worth noting that the current crisis has prompted an unprecedented ‘social solidarity initiative’ between An Post, the Communications Workers Union and the Government. This initiative entails the delivery staff – now on staggered starting times - checking on vulnerable and older persons living on their own, as they ring doorbells and take messages to local shops, pharmacies etc. Explaining the move, the union’s General Secretary acknowledged that ‘these are unprecedented times that require cross community solidarity from all of us to support the vulnerable and older people, and particularly those that may not have a strong family support network close by’.
Likewise, in the aviation sector - which has witnessed a 75% drop in traffic – organisations like Aer Lingus, Ryanair and the Dublin Airport Authority and their respective representatives have responded in a collaborative manner. For example, Ryanair has cut pay by 50% (for April) and staff at the Dublin Airport Authority are taking one week’s mandatory leave and/or time in lieu, whilst at Aer Lingus the workforce are now on a 50% reduced pay and short-time working arrangement as a SIPTU source acknowledges that ‘it will assist in sustaining long term employment at the airline’, whilst their Chief People Officer assures staff that these measures are ‘emergency and temporary in nature’.
Likewise, emergency measures in the Defence Forces to cope with the pandemic that are being progressed with staff representatives include the re-enlistment of former members, as well as expanded allowances for many of those on duties connected with the crisis. And for another frontline category, it is notable that retail giants Tesco Ireland and Aldi have decided to pay their employees (in stores and distribution centres) a 10% bonus on hourly pay in recognition of their staff going above and beyond the call of duty to cope with the current crisis.
Notably, the retail sector stateside has also displayed some generosity of spirit in its attempts to cope. For example, Walmart is enacting an emergency leave policy for its 1.4 m. hourly workers, allowing them to take time off without penalty if they fear the spread of the virus, whilst Starbucks committed to offering 20 free therapy sessions a year for all of its employees, including part-time workers, as part of a broader mental-health benefit plan. In a similar vein, Amazon is launching a $25m relief fund for delivery drivers and seasonal workers, to help employees ‘that are under financial distress during this challenging time’.
At another important practical level, on March 2nd last the ‘tweet specialists’ at Twitter became the first major U.S. corporation to strongly encourage its employees to work from home, to avoid spreading the virus. Google followed up shortly thereafter as it told more than 100,000 North American employees to stay home until at least April 10th. Whilst looking at technology giant IBM, some may say that ‘it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good’. Having ended remote working for its American staff about 3 years ago, it recently asked them (and their employees in China, Japan, South Korea and Italy) to work from home.
HR - The Policy and the Practicalities
Of course, the overwhelming majority of workplaces worldwide have been affected by the current crisis. In response to same, many HR practitioners have been forced to revisit and revise their policies and practices in an effort to make them ‘fit for purpose’. Whether part of the ‘essential services’ that are continuing to operate (see https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/dfeb8f-list-of-essential-service-providers-under-new-public-health-guidelin/), or subject to the lockdown until April 12th next, employers are now firmly focused on 5 key affected areas:
1. Contingency Planning
One of the lessons emerging from the current pandemic is that on occasion events do come to pass that disrupt normal workplace operations. Hence, ‘continuity planning’ is crucial for coping with such unforeseen and unplanned emergency events, where they entail fallouts like staff absenteeism. Likewise, interruptions to supply chains and (what the insurance industry terms) ‘acts of God’ can impact on normal business continuity. Such scenarios clearly necessitate advance planning, including a review of policies and procedures to ensure that they are fit for – as opposed to a hindrance to – the organisation’s purpose and capacity to respond and survive. According to the employers’ body IBEC, this contingency planning should extend to:
- Familiarising key staff with the organisation’s Crisis Management Plan.
- Developing a comprehensive communications strategy.
- Communicating relevant employee policies, including absence and attendance management.
- Considering resourcing options to address fluctuations in work requirements.
- Stress testing the business to assess responses to external and sudden shocks.
In an identical vein, the HR profession’s CIPD advises that every organisation should have a contingency team, with responsibility for operating a contingency plan.
Related thereto, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has released a ‘Business Continuity Planning’ checklist of preparatory actions for responding to the current COVID-19 crisis.
In January 2020, Deloitte Consulting surveyed senior staff across a range of countries and industries to determine their response to the corona crisis that had broken out in China. A key message to emerge from this survey is that employers ‘should keep frequent communication with employees’. This extends to epidemic notification, prevention and psychological assistance. Explaining the importance thereof, the survey report concludes that ‘it will greatly enhance employees’ trust towards companies’ and enable appropriate preparation for revised working arrangements. Likewise, IBEC extol the virtues of ‘good communications and open dialogue with employees about how the organisation will address the various scenarios potentially arising’.
They also recommend that organisations appoint a co-ordinator from a cross functional team comprising key areas of the business, to provide up-to-date reliable information to employees, suppliers and customers and to prevent rumour and misinformation, whilst clarifying procedures and policies and providing important central visibility regarding resourcing and operational needs. This approach is designed to enable informed decisions on the crucial question of resource allocation. And at a further practical and important level pertaining to communications, as was pointed out in Jennifer Cashman’s recent contribution to Legal Island, employers should ensure that they have up-to-date contact details for all employees and their express agreement to be contacted on their personal mobile phones. RDJ has many fine insight articles on the virus and employment-related matters:
3. Health and Safety
Given the times that we are in, the WRC recently took the opportunity to remind parties of their health and safety obligations. Specifically, the Commission draws attention to the provisions of the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005 that ‘places a general duty of care on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety, health and welfare at work of his or her employees’.
It also points out that such duties include ‘the provision of facilities, arrangements, information and instruction for the welfare of employees at work’. Notably, employees are also reminded that they have obligations under that Act ‘to ensure that they do not pose a threat to the safety of others in their workplace’.
In response to this all-important health, safety and welfare at work agenda, operational workplaces incorporated such practices as ‘social distancing’, hygiene controls, revised shift handover arrangements, staggered start and break times, contactless payments, positive virus test protocols/practices and home or remote working. Related thereto, the Health and Safety Authority points out that employers are required to ensure, in so far as reasonably practicable, that an appropriate risk assessment is carried out for remote or home working.
The CIPD also urges employers to be proactive on the health and safety front and to:
- Be informed, by keeping up to date with official guidance from Government.
- Be prepared: Carry out a risk assessment and have a plan and team in place to deal with an outbreak.
- Ensure managers and staff are clear on sick leave and pay polices and know what needs to happen if someone has been exposed or falls ill.
- Be flexible e.g. remote working, staggered start times.
4. Remote Working
In addition to the aforementioned increased workplace co-operation levels, another upside to the current crisis is that – according to Willis Towers Watson - nearly half of the organisations they’ve surveyed are implementing remote working. This may well prove to be an enduring practice, given that Gartner’s global research and advisory firm records that 64% of professional workers say that they could work anywhere and it forecasts that the demand for remote or home working will increase by 30% by 2030, as the Generation Z cohort fully engage with the workforce. Little wonder then that the CIPD would alert HR practitioners to the fact that ‘this may be your opportunity to show the positive impact of flexible/remote working on engagement and productivity’. However, the same practitioners will also need to be mindful that all of their legal responsibilities, including a duty of care for staff – and of particular relevance, the Organisation of Working Time Act – still apply. Likewise, as recently reviewed for Legal Island by Victoria Logan, there are cyber security and data protection provisions that warrant consideration in such scenarios.
5. Pay and Lay-Offs
The Government response to the current crisis includes efforts designed to deter redundancies, whilst protecting the relationship between employers and employees during this ‘emergency’ period, which is now scheduled to run to May 31st next. Such efforts include a Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment that has been enhanced from €203 to €350 per week. Employees who had been laid off since the onset of the crisis can now be brought back on the payroll, as their employer avails of this subsidy.
Though employers are not obliged to top up these payments to the full (pre-crisis) level, they are asked to do so by Government. In a similar vein, the Government will pay a temporary wage subsidy of 70% of take-home pay - up to a maximum weekly tax-free amount of €410 - to help companies retain and pay staff.
Where a ‘short-time’ regime is imposed, short time work support payments are provided for (see https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/612b90-covid-19-information-for-employers/). Further succour is available to employers amidst the new emergency measures, as they put into abeyance an employee’s right to claim redundancy after a lay-off period, as per the Redundancy Payments Act of 1967. The relevance of these provisions, together with the legal ramifications thereof, were recently addressed by Elizabeth Mara and Jennifer Cashman for Legal Island. See latest update from Legal Island and writers on the coronavirus pages on the employment law hub:
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The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.