Managing HR Through COVID-19
A Practical Guide for Multinational Employers
Prepared by Mayer Brown
As at April 8, 2020
This guide will help employers manage HR legal and practical issues arising from COVID-19. It covers:
- Good Practice Guidance giving high-level consideration;
- An Action Point Checklist drilling down into the detail; and
- Answers to Key Questions facing employers in Hong Kong.
This publication has been written by Mayer Brown and forms part of a wider Mayer Brown Guide for Multinational Employers, which is available here.
There are a number of key good practice points that employers across all jurisdictions will want to consider in connection with COVID-19:
1. Keep up-to-date with accurate information
It is difficult for an employer to make proper decisions based on rumors, assumptions and “fake news”. Therefore, it is important for an employer to stay up-to-date with accurate information and make decisions based on facts. Employers should monitor official sources, including government advisories and the World Health Organization (“WHO”) website, and check that the information they receive is factually correct.
2. Know where your employees are and where they have been
An employer cannot keep its employees out of harm’s way if it does not know where they are and where they have been. As outbreaks of COVID-19 occur in various parts of the world, keep track of which of your employees could be at risk.
3. Communicate with your employees
Employers should communicate openly and often with their employees so that they have the information they need to help keep themselves educated and updated about the coronavirus. It should not assume that all employees will educate themselves or have access to the same sources of reliable information. Putting everyone on the same page will help the employer and its employees move together in a timely manner as a business. Open and timely communication will help build trust and reduce the spread of rumors that may cause anxiety in the workplace.
4. Provide a safe platform for employees to raise concerns
Employers should give employees a safe platform where they can raise concerns on all aspects related to work, from mental health to the risk of having contracted COVID-19. This is not just good employee relations, but early detection and doing something about it can help to reduce the spread of the virus. It is one thing to have an employee assistance plan and ask employees to report issues, but if those who report are stigmatized or treated with contempt, employees may be deterred from reporting.
There may be nervousness and anxiety in the workplace, and possibly even conflicts, given concerns about the virus. Employees should be given avenues to communicate such anxiety to their employer, so that concerns are addressed earlier and do not balloon into bigger issues.
5. If you can be flexible, then be flexible
Employers should understand that this is a time of stress for all parties, including employees. Recognize that employees will have different needs depending on their circumstances (e.g., those with school-age children may need more time off as school classes are suspended).
This time of uncertainty will pass but employees will remember how their employer treated them long after the threat of the virus has disappeared. A disgruntled employee may try to make it known to the world how badly their employer treated them. This may affect the employer’s brand and ability to attract and retain talent. The employer may then have to wait for another crisis or challenging time to get the opportunity to prove itself as a good employer.
6. One size may not fit all
While consistency in treatment is generally to be favored, be conscious that one size may not fit all. For example, “work from home” or remote working may not work for everyone. The implementation of general directives should be checked against legal obligations under the contract of employment and local law.
Action Point Checklist
In general terms, the steps an employer needs to be taking now relate to four categories: Review, Communicate, Update and Travel. No list of action points will be comprehensive for all employers, but the following will form a good starting point.
- Review business continuity plans and how these would be maintained if employees are suffering from coronavirus absences.
- Review existing sickness policies and procedures. Are they adequately disseminated to staff? Do they need amending?
- Review contracts of employment. It may be relevant to establish whether or not individuals can be asked to undertake different work or at different locations or at different times from the norm.
- Review the employer’s emergency procedures, e.g., if there is an infection and the workplace is closed on a temporary basis. If appropriate, carry out a test run of an emergency communication to see how robust the process is.
- Ensure contact details for all staff are up-to-date.
- Undertake a risk analysis of high-risk groups of employees, and what steps can be taken to try and reduce risks for those groups. These groups may include:
- those who travel frequently to countries where there is currently or may well in future be a risk of infection.
- those with health issues, such as asthma, diabetes, cancer, or those who are pregnant, who are more likely to suffer adversely if they become infected with the virus.
- Review procedures in the office for preventing the spread of the virus, e.g. increased cleaning, availability of hand sanitizers and tissues etc.
- Review planning for the possibility of large scale absenteeism. For example:
- Identify the essential positions within the business, what needs to carry on during an emergency, and what is the minimum number of employees required.
- Identify employees with transferable skills so that these essential positions can always be temporarily filled.
- Consider flexible work patterns, such as employees working from home.
- Identify those employees who have the necessary IT infrastructure to work from home (e.g., remote access to the office computer systems).
- Identify an appropriate person as spokesperson/communicator of updates on policies etc., with appropriate credibility.
- What, if anything, is said about absence from work for reasons other than ill-health, e.g., where an office is closed?
- Assuming the employer has a health and safety committee, have there been any discussions with that committee about COVID-19 and its potential impact? If there is no such committee, the employer may want to consider setting one up.
- Communicate as a matter of urgency with the high-risk groups identified in any risk review to ensure they are aware of their high-risk status and the measures that are being taken to assist.
- Ensure managers are aware of the relevant workplace policies.
- Consider issuing guidance to employees on how to recognize when a person is infected with the coronavirus. What are the symptoms, and what should one do if one is taken ill at home or at work? It is also important to emphasize that individuals may not recognize that they have the virus and so may not be exhibiting symptoms. Employees should be informed of the reporting procedure within their employer if they have a potential infection as well as any official reporting process.
- Provide advice to encourage individuals to take a degree of responsibility for their own health and safety and to slow the spread of the virus. For example, advice on handwashing and use of sanitizer gels, coupled with a willingness to self-identify where it is possible that individuals have come into contact with individuals with the virus, have become infected themselves or have returned from private travel abroad to an area which turns out to be affected by the virus.
- Make clear that where staff are ill, they must not come to work regardless, i.e. “struggle through”.
- Initiate a system to keep up-to-date, especially given the speed at which infection is spreading.
- Consider establishing a committee on the employer’s side to coordinate responses and engage with any staff consultative forum, and with particular responsibility for staying up-to-date with public health updates.
- How will employers communicate to employees regular updates on the coronavirus and its spread? As news develops, it is extremely important for an employer to be issuing fact based updates, to avoid the possibility of fear being used by worried employees to make decisions about whether or not to come to work, whether to travel abroad, etc.
- Who will have the authority to determine changes to policy and issue any new communications to staff?
- Log employee travel before it is booked and check against the latest travel protocols.
- Ensure staff know that this applies to personal travel as well as business travel.
- Encourage staff to tell you if close family members with whom they share a house are travelling to infected areas.
- Replace face-to-face meetings (especially those involving travel) with video conferences, telephone conferences, etc.
- Consult/communicate about whether to encourage varied work patterns to avoid travelling on public transport at rush hour.
As at April 8, 2020
1. What are an employer’s main legal obligations?
The main areas of an employer’s legal liability associated with COVID-19 in the workplace include:
- Ensuring so far as reasonably practicable the workplace health and safety of employees (i.e., obligation under the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance (“OSHO”) and common law duty of care);
- Complying with obligations under the contract of employment and the Employment Ordinance (“EO”) (e.g., continuing to pay wages, ensuring the employee works within the terms of the contract of employment);
- Complying with the Disability Discrimination Ordinance (“DDO”) and other anti-discrimination ordinances;
- Complying with the Employees’ Compensation Ordinance (“ECO”) (e.g., having appropriate insurance and timely reporting of illnesses/death). As well as the legal requirement for an employer to take out the appropriate insurance under the ECO, it may also wish to consider business interruption insurance, medical insurance and evacuation cover; and
- Complying with the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.
- An employer may also wish to review its existing insurance policies, including medical insurance, evacuation cover and business interruption.
2. Do I need to prepare for and have in place a workplace plan to deal with COVID-19?
There is no legal obligation in Hong Kong on an employer to specifically have a workplace COVID-19 response plan. However, the OSHO requires all employers in Hong Kong to, so far as reasonably practicable, ensure the safety and health at work of all their employees. One reasonably practicable step an employer could take is to develop a plan dealing with workplace health and safety issues associated with COVID-19.
We recommend that employers prepare a detailed plan (if one is not already in place) and implement it. The more detailed the plan the better prepared an employer will be to cope with any COVID-19 outbreak. A plan should deal with preparations to prevent an outbreak, what happens during the outbreak, and the steps to be taken after the outbreak. Both workplace health and safety issues, and business continuity issues should be covered.
The plan may be part of and/or refinement of a broader plan already developed.
3. What should a workplace COVID-19 response plan cover?
The Centre for Health Protection has issued Health Advice on Prevention of Severe Respiratory Disease associated with a Novel Infectious Agent in Workplace, which sets out the guidelines on preventive measures that may be taken.
4. Can I direct my employees to go home or stay at home if there is an outbreak?
Yes, but it depends. If the employee is infected with COVID-19 and keeping them away from the workplace is reasonably necessary to protect public health, then the employer may direct the employee not to attend at the workplace. The employer should continue to comply with its obligations under the contract of employment (e.g., to pay wages). The DDO prohibits the less favorable treatment of an employee on the ground of disability. There is an exception if the disability is an infectious disease (which includes COVID-19) and the discriminatory act is reasonably necessary to protect public health. So, if there is less favorable treatment of the employee on the ground of disability, the employer should ensure that it can avail itself of the exception.
5. Can I direct an employee to see a doctor?
Yes, but it depends. Requesting an employee to see a doctor is invasive and an employer would therefore generally require an express power in the contract of employment to direct an employee to see a doctor. Depending upon the circumstances, an employer may require an employee to obtain a clearance from a doctor before being allowed to enter into the workplace.
6. Do I have to continue to pay wages and provide other employment-related entitlements during a COVID-19 outbreak?
Yes. The contract of employment will continue during a COVID-19 outbreak (including during periods in which the office premises are shut as mandated by the government) unless the employment has ceased. Depending on the circumstances, an employer may be able to refuse to pay wages to an employee who, for example, is absent from work without authorization.
7. Can I quarantine certain staff to certain parts of an office or send them to a different office?
It depends but it is possible. An employer must be careful not to contravene the DDO. An employee with COVID-19 or suspected of having it will be a person with a “disability” for the purposes of the DDO. Depending on the circumstances (including if an exception applies under the DDO – see Q4 above), an employer may ask an employee to work from a particular part of an office if it is reasonably necessary to ensure public health. As to whether an employer can send an employee to work in a different office, that would also depend on the circumstances including if an exception applies under the DDO, the contract of employment (e.g., whether it provides that the employee is entitled to work at a particular location), the extent of the travel required and inconvenience suffered by changing the work location. For example, it may not be permissible to change an employee’s workplace from Hong Kong to a place overseas when the employee does not usually travel as part of their duties.
8. Can I direct my employees to report suspected cases of COVID-19?
Yes, in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, in our view, it would be lawful and reasonable to ask an employee to report if they suspect they have COVID-19.
9. Can an employee lawfully refuse to attend work if there is a COVID-19 outbreak?
It depends but is possible. An employee can only lawfully refuse to attend work if they reasonably fear for their health and safety by doing so. Section 10 of the EO entitles an employee to terminate their contract of employment without notice or payment in lieu if they reasonably fear physical danger by violence or disease which was not contemplated by their contract of employment expressly or by necessary implication. If an employer requires an employee to attend work in these circumstances, it is likely to be in breach of the OSHO.
10. Can I screen employees and customers before allowing them to enter the workplace?
Maybe. Depending upon the extent of the outbreak, the screening of employees and customers may be a reasonable step for an employer to take to reduce the risk of its employees being exposed to harm. However, depending upon technological and medical testing limitations, there may be logistical and privacy issues with undertaking any such screening in a timely and effective manner before gaining entry to the building.
Appendix: Workplace COVID-19 Response Plan
A plan should deal with the following:
BEFORE AN OUTBREAK
- Preventive measures.
- Disinfecting the workplace regularly.
- Maintaining good indoor ventilation.
- Making sure that employees, suppliers and customers are aware of the employer’s plans in the event of an outbreak.
- Ensuring sufficient supplies of appropriate masks, alcohol wipes, gloves, paper towels, thermometers, disinfectants, etc.
- If employees are required to travel to areas known to have the virus, whether such travel is necessary.
DURING AN OUTBREAK
- The steps the employer will take to ensure the safety of employees while at work during a COVID-19 outbreak include how an employer will identify risks of employees becoming infected and how to minimize such risks. The employer may also wish to seek advice from government/official sources as to what steps need to be taken, e.g., quarantine requirements.
- Communication strategies, such as how and what information will be communicated to employees, suppliers and customers.
- Where employees will work, e.g., home, in the office or in alternative temporary offices.
- How to deal with infection and/or deaths of colleagues, e.g., counselling.
- A mechanism for determining whether employees, suppliers and customers will be allowed access to the workplace, especially if they show symptoms of being infected by COVID-19.
- What to do with high-risk/exposure staff (e.g., pregnant, key employees and employees who travel).
AFTER AN OUTBREAK
- Ways to ensure that employees and customers have fully recovered before they are allowed back into the workplace.
- Rehabilitation for sick employees returning to the workplace.
Communication with employees and flexibility on enforcing requirements imposed on employees under their contract of employment will be important in maintaining employee relations and reducing anxiety and panic during an outbreak Therefore, subject to local legal obligations and requirements, and depending on the circumstances, employers may wish to:
- Discuss with staff the possibility of a workplace closure prior to closing.
- Allow employees to take annual leave or unpaid leave once sick leave has been exhausted.
- Allow employees to work from home.
- Explore salary reduction or unpaid leave as an alternative to termination of employment where business has slowed down.
Employers should make visitors to its offices aware of any health and safety hazards associated with entering the workplace before any intended visit, where reasonably practicable.
- Important Further Information on the Employment Support Scheme (ESS) for Hong Kong Employers
- Emerging From Lockdown: Checklist for Multinational Employers
- COVID-19 – Hong Kong Government Announces Further Update and Improvement Measures on the Employment Support Scheme
- Covid-19-Related Implications For Liability Insurers In Hong Kong
- Assessing Your Liability as an Employer in Hong Kong When Staff Work From Home
- Overview of the Prohibition on Group Gatherings in Hong Kong
- COVID-19 – Government Support for Employers in Hong Kong: Further Information
- Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner Issues Guidelines For Employers Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
- COVID-19 – Government Support for Employers in Hong Kong
- COVID-19 – The “No Redundancy” Undertaking under the Employment Support Scheme in Hong Kong
- Overview of the Compulsory Quarantine Regulations in Hong Kong
- COVID-19 – Quarantine Arrangements in Hong Kong
- COVID-19 and Staffing Costs in Hong Kong
- Worldwide Travel Disruption Due to the Coronavirus: What Employers Need to Know
- Practical Considerations for Employers In Handling COVID-19 in Hong Kong
- Novel Coronavirus – What Do I Do If My Employee Is Quarantined or Put Under Medical Surveillance in Hong Kong?
- Novel Coronavirus and Employer Obligations in Hong Kong – also published by the Hong Kong General Chambers of Commerce, and HumanResources online.
For more information relevant to Coronavirus COVID-19, please visit our website.