08 Jun 2020

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, who had even heard of the word "furlough?" It seems that every week we are adding new words to our lexicon. With the recent launch of the contact tracing app, we now have "test and trace"; "Zoom fatigue" is being used to describe the mental exhaustion associated with online video conferencing, which is causing employees stress and anxiety; and now we have a "roadmap" for the opening of the employment tribunals. We bring you news of all of these in this article, which summarises the latest developments in employment law.

The headline news is undoubtedly the changes to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which will start to take effect on 1 July. If you have not furloughed an employee yet and wish to do so before the scheme ends, you will need to put them on furlough for the first time on or before Wednesday 10 June. You can read about the changes and what else employers need to do in order to prepare here.

In this article we look at some of the other developments that you need to be aware of.

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

The latest figures for the take-up of the scheme are published every Tuesday. As at midnight on 31 May, 8.7 million jobs had been furloughed by 1.1 million employers and £17.5 billion had been claimed. By 29 May, HMRC had received 1,868 reports of alleged fraudulent use of the scheme.

Further guidance on the scheme has been published in the last couple of weeks. We have updated our FAQs to include all the latest details and links to the guidance. We are expecting further guidance on the changes to the scheme to be published on 12 June so look out for that, together with our commentary.

EHRC guidance

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published guidance on COVID-19 and reasonable adjustments, designed to offer quick reminders to help employers make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees or those with long-term health conditions who are affected by coronavirus.

It has also published guidance on COVID-19 and pregnancy/maternity, which sets out "dos and don'ts" for dealing with pregnant workers and those on maternity leave in the pandemic in order to avoid discrimination.

Acas guidance on mental health

A recent YouGov survey commissioned by Acas found that nearly two out of five employees working from home felt stressed or anxious or experienced mental health difficulties due to their working situation. Acas has published guidance to help employees manage their mental health at work during coronavirus. It includes practical steps for employees, managers and employers.

Statutory sick pay

The new NHS Test and Trace service has now started. The Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) (No 4) Regulations 2020 came into force on 28 May and deem someone incapable of work and therefore eligible for SSP if they have been notified to self-isolate for 14 days because they have had contact with a person who has coronavirus. Employees who are working at home should be able to continue working but anyone working in a workplace will not be able to do so, as they will be instructed not to leave home for 14 days. Employers will therefore need to find work for them to do at home if possible. Alternatively, they could be put on sick leave or furlough or allowed to take paid holiday.

Employment tribunal news

The Joint Direction made by the Presidents of Employment Tribunals (England and Wales and Scotland) on 19 March has been reviewed for a second time. It deals with the listing of employment tribunal (ET) cases during the pandemic. It remains in force in its current form.

The Presidents have also published an updated FAQ document, which includes a road map setting out a broad plan for increasing the number and type of ET hearings that can take place from June to December 2020. The key points are:

  • Remote hearings in straightforward money claims (eg wages or holiday pay) and remedy hearings will start in June using the Cloud Video Platform (CVP) but it is unlikely there will be any in-person hearings
  • Judges will be trained on the CVP in June
  • Some unfair dismissal claims will be heard remotely in July and August, with some simple money claims and preliminary hearings taking place in person in ETs that can comply with social distancing measures
  • In September and October more complex cases (such as discrimination and whistleblowing) will start to be heard via the CVP, with a small number of in-person and hybrid hearings
  • During November and December there will be a period of consolidation and review.

The roadmap is subject to change because it depends on factors such as staffing and the availability of remote video hearings. The parties will be able to give their views on whether a case is suitable for remote or hybrid hearing, which the ET will take into account.

We have written before about the delay in claims being processed by the ETs and sent to respondents. The updated FAQ document states that new claims will be issued where an ET is well staffed but the situation is likely to vary across the country due to a difference in rates of absence due to ill health or isolation and the fact that staff can be redeployed to prioritise urgent work in criminal or family courts. ET offices that are currently closed are expected to reopen gradually during June and July once risk assessments have been carried out and social distancing measures have been put in place.

Immigration update

From 8 June 2020, a 14 day self-isolation requirement will be introduced for anyone travelling to England from outside and within the Common Travel Area (UK, Ireland and Islands). For more information see here.

Trade union facility time

Facility time is paid time-off during working hours for trade union representatives to carry out trade union duties. All public sector organisations that employ more than 49 full-time employees are required to submit annual data relating to the use of facility time by their employees. The reporting period is 1 April to 31 March, with submissions due by 31 July. The reporting deadline has been extended to 30 September this year as a result of COVID-19 and will be kept under review.

Equal pay

The 50th anniversary of the coming into force of the Equal Pay Act 1970 has been somewhat overshadowed by COVID-19. Nevertheless, Acas has marked it by publishing a new guide, which covers the basics of equal pay law. It includes steps on how employees can raise concerns if they feel they have an equal pay case and good practice guidance for employers on how to try to prevent discriminatory practices in their workplace.