Employment and long Covid - your rights explained

Monday, 22nd February 2021, 2:03 pm
Updated Monday, 22nd February 2021, 2:03 pm
Many people throughout the UK are currently suffering from long Covid, which can present with a variety of symptoms and can range in recovery time, depending on the individual (Photo: Shutterstock)

Many people throughout the UK are currently suffering from long Covid, which can present with a variety of symptoms and can range in recovery time, depending on the individual.

Some people who are struggling with the condition have reported symptoms of breathlessness, muscle aches and severe fatigue, among others.

The NHS explains that the amount of time it takes to recover from coronavirus is different for everybody, with some feeling better in a few days or weeks, but for some people, symptoms can last a lot longer than this.

But what are your employment rights if you are off work due to long Covid, and what can employers do to support their workers? Here’s everything you need to know.

What are my employment rights?

In the first instance, employers should continue to comply with the usual procedures they have in place when it comes to sick leave.

Tim Scott, Director of People at Fletchers Solicitors and Chartered Fellow of the CIPD, explains that “in the absence of any specific legislation to deal with long Covid, the minimum expectations of the law are that employers should comply with the usual provisions around sickness absence.

“A few areas are covered by law, such as statutory sick pay (SSP) and sick notes.”

Kath Kidd, Senior Associate at DAS Law, explains that if an employee is off work for a long period of time due to long Covid, “then the time off will be classed as sickness absence and the pay received whilst off work will depend on their contract of employment.”

Kate Palmer, HR Advice Director at Peninsula, explains that although in the first instance “long Covid should be dealt with in the same way as any other medical condition,” she adds that as long Covid “potentially becomes more of an issue,” employers may then find themselves having to increasingly find new ways of managing employees, “incorporating not only when they are at their most sick but when they return to work.”

The HR expert explains that although it yet remains to be seen what the true long-term implications of this long Covid are, “employers need to be prepared to respond to this.”

In regards to employers dealing with employees with long covid, Holly Cudbill, an associate in the employment team at Blake Morgan LLP, says that “managing intermittent sickness absence can be very tricky for employers.”

Ms Cudbill adds: “Whilst ‘capability’ is a potentially fair reason for dismissal an employer has to adopt a fair procedure for managing sickness absence, whether it's long term or intermittent.

“This will include obtaining up to date medical reports to establish whether the individual will be able to carry out their role fully and when this might be, and discussing the reports with the individual.”

In regards to the context of long Covid, “employers need to understand that the full, long-term impact of the condition is unknown and the symptoms may change over time,” Ms Cudbill adds.

What could employees do to help?

Employers should always consider each situation on an individual basis when employees are suffering from a medical condition, says Ms Palmer, because the effect of the condition on each person can be different.

“The important thing is not to have a blanket approach to employees who are confirmed to have long Covid, which means discussing with each employee to identify how it affects them and deciding on the support needed to ensure the employee can continue working well,” Ms Palmer adds.

Employees returning to work after long-term sickness will also need to be managed carefully and depending on how long they’ve been away, they may need adjustments made to their working day in order to help them settle back into their role.

“These adjustments may need to be more permanent if they continue to suffer the ill effects of long Covid for some time,” adds Ms Palmer.

An employer “may be able to offer additional support to its employees through employee assistance programmes or through occupational health,” says Ms Kidd.

In regards to someone suffering with long Covid returning back to work, a “reasonable adjustment that is likely to help people with long Covid is the phased return to work, allowing employees to work flexibly or on reduced hours,” adds Mr Scott.

He explains that this may be beneficial, as the effects of long Covid can be unpredictable from day-to-day and it will therefore allow workers to “ease back in gently”.

However, Mr Scott explains that reasonable adjustments depend on each individual and “employers would be well advised to listen to individual requests for support and do what they can to accommodate them.”