27 March 2020 - Article
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Employers are dealing with rapidly evolving manpower challenges arising from the COVID-19 epidemic. They are grappling with issues of employees potentially being placed on quarantine or forced leave of absence, excess or imbalanced manpower, implementing protocols to minimise health and safety risks, and putting in place business continuity plans (“BCP”) and crisis management plans.
Here are some of these issues, and how employers can tackle them.
1. Enhanced health and safety plan for employees
Employers have a statutory duty under the Workplace Health and Safety Act to take measures that ensure the health and safety of their employees at work to the extent reasonably practicable, failing which they may be liable for committing a criminal offence. Employers also have an additional duty in common law to provide and maintain a reasonably safe place of work and to take reasonable care of their employees’ safety.
Employers should accordingly implement robust health and safety measures to ensure compliance with their legal obligations, such as:
a) Introduce appropriate precautionary measures including daily temperature-taking, appropriate use of protective gear such as masks and gloves, and even providing hand sanitizers.
b) Increase the frequency and extent of cleaning of public or high traffic areas in the workplace.
c) Train employees on how to properly deploy enhanced hygiene and cleanliness standards and urge them to observe good personal hygiene by washing their hands regularly, covering their mouths when coughing or sneezing, and avoiding touching their faces.
d) Train employees to identify COVID-19 symptoms and steps to take if they feel unwell. They should be directed to, as a guide, (i) inform the company immediately; (ii) not to report to work or, if at work, to leave the premises; (iii) to visit a doctor immediately; and (iv) stay at home if directed to do so by the doctor by way of a Medical Certificate or if they are still feeling unwell or having any respiratory symptoms.
e) Train employees on notification protocol if a visitor/customer reports feeling unwell to them.
f) Get employees to sign a travel and health declaration with express instructions to update HR immediately when circumstances change. Employees should also be informed that they should let the company know if they are approached as part of contact tracing exercise in relation to suspected or confirmed cases.
g) Keep employees updated on current status and recommendations issued by local and international health organisations through relevant internal communications. Any new contingency plans implemented by the employer must also be clearly communicated.
Employers should also make every effort to ensure their workplace is free from discrimination and harassment at a time of heightened tensions. This involves making it clear to the staff that harassment or discrimination against other employees and/or visitors/customers on grounds of nationality or race will not be tolerated and will be dealt with severely.
2. Compliance with employment-related advisories by the MOM
Employers should abide by employment-related measures and advisories issued by the Ministry of Manpower (“MOM”). These include:
A. Measures introduced by the MOM to limit the potential risk posed by arriving from mainland China:
a) From 31 January 2020, the MOM will reject all new work pass applications for foreign workers from mainland China until further notice. Renewal applications for existing work pass holders will not be affected.
b) All returning employees with Hubei travel history within 14 days prior to arrival in Singapore will be quarantined at home or other suitable facilities. Those in Singapore before 28 January 2020 will be assessed by the Ministry of Health, with those at higher risk being quarantined.
c) All work pass holders arriving from mainland China (excluding Hubei province) on or after 31 January 2020 6pm will be required to go on leave of absence (“LOA”) for 14 days from the day of arrival in Singapore. Under the LOA, employees are not allowed to attend at their workplace. They are allowed to leave their home for brief periods to buy food and necessities.
d) All employees, including Singaporeans, Permanent Residents, Long Term Pass holders and work pass holders, arriving from mainland China (excluding Hubei province) on or after 11:59pm on 18 February 2020 will be placed on a mandatory 14-day ‘Stay-Home Notice’ (“SHN”). Individuals subject to SHN will be required to remain home-bound at all time during the 14-day period, or face strict penalties for flouting the same. SHN is a stricter regime than the LOA.
e) With effect from 8 February 2020, employers must obtain the MOM’s prior approval before work pass holders, who have visited mainland China within the past 14 days, commence their journey to enter or return to Singapore. This is regardless of the nationality of the work pass holder and also applies to their dependents and those with in-principle approvals. The MOM introduced this requirement to enable the entry/return of work pass holders to be carried out in an orderly and well-managed way. If the employers need assistance with finding a residence for the workers to stay during their LOA or SHN, MOM will link them up with hotels or dormitory operators.
The MOM has actively been keeping close tabs on employees on LOA to ensure compliance by conducting random checks via phone calls, video calls and unannounced visits to workplaces.
The MOM and the authorities have thus far taken robust and swift enforcement action against errant employees who have violated their LOA as well as their employers. It was reported on 9 February 2020 that the MOM had taken severe and swift action against four employees who breached their LOA sometime between Feb 4 and February 8 by cancelling their work passes, repatriating them within 24 hours and permanently banning them from working in Singapore in the future. The errant employers of these four employees, as well as of two Singapore Permanent Residents, were punished by having their work pass privileges curtailed for two years. Ignorance of the requirements of the LOA and/or SHN regime is not an excuse, and will not protect employers from breaches of the same.
In order to ensure that employees understand the severity of violating their LOA or SHN, employers should:
a) Get affected employees to acknowledge the requirements of the LOA or SHN in writing. The employer should state that the affected employee should not attend at the workplace or any third-party sites, including vendor or customer sites. For SHN, the acknowledgement should stress unequivocally that the affected employee should not leave his house.
b) Clearly explain the severe personal consequences of a violation that the affected employee might have to bear, which could include immediate deportation to their home country and a permanent ban from working in Singapore in the future, if they are work pass holders.
c) Get the affected employee to check in twice a day to confirm that they are home and to update on their temperature, and whether they are feeling unwell and/or experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms.
d) Employers should consider temporarily disabling the affected employees’ physical access to their premises during the 14-day period.
B. Breach of quarantine orders
In the event an employee is quarantined, the employer should ensure the employee does not violate the quarantine order (“QO”) by showing up for work.
Foreign workers who are issued with QOs may be quarantined at home or within their dormitory. They will first have their existing housing assessed by the Quarantine Order Agent for home quarantine, to ascertain if the housing is suitable for quarantine. There is no need for employers to provide suitable quarantine facilities for foreign workers.
The Infectious Diseases Act has been amended such that quarantine orders can be issued to persons suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19, allowing detention or isolation in a hospital or other place for such period as to prevent spread. Individuals who violate this order can be fined up to S$10,000 and/or imprisoned for up to six months, and repeat offenders can be fined up to S$20,000 and/or imprisoned for up to one year.
3. Business continuity plan
Employers should prepare a detailed business continuity plan to be triggered in the event that the ‘Disease Outbreak Response System Condition’ (DORSCON) rating is raised, and/or upon the occurrence of other critical events, such as a suspected or confirmed case being a contact of their employees or customers. The business continuity plan could include:
a) Splitting teams (across the hierarchy if workable) and/or splitting locations for contingency planning;
b) Implementing flexible work arrangements for white collar employees (e.g. accounts, back-office staff, reservations department etc) and a rotation roster of work days / shifts for on-property employees whose jobs are more manual in nature and do not easily lend themselves to remote working (e.g. chefs, housekeepers, production-line workers, etc.);
c) Allowing employees to take unpaid leave or work reduced hours. Companies may also wish to, as several banks have done, grant additional days of leave to employees who are front or customer-facing and thereby take on additional risk. These arrangements should be agreed with employees.
d) Offering to train/upskill staff to be redeployed in critical areas requiring more or urgent manpower; and
e) Ensuring that crisis management protocols and infrastructure are pro-actively put in place so that timely and effective action can be taken in response to a crisis to properly protect customers, employees and the business.
Employers should put in place robust plans to ensure the health and safety of employees, which should be coupled with a detailed business continuity plan to be triggered in the event that the DORSCON rating is raised, and/or other critical events such as a suspected or confirmed case coming into contact with their employees or customers.
Employers must also ensure that they comply with the recent employment advisories from the MOM directing employers to take necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This should also be viewed against the wider context of employers’ continued duty of care owed to their employees to provide a safe and healthy workplace.
Click here to read more insights on how we can weather the coronavirus outbreak with you.