With the onset of COVID-19 cases, employers in Singapore have been advised to take appropriate precautionary measures in order to continue running their business operations while working to minimise the risk of community spread of COVID-19. Whilst this article is primarily focused on Singapore, we expect that other countries around the world will have similar underlying employment / human resources concerns as well. Set out below is a summary of key matters with which employers in Singapore should familiarise themselves in view of the COVID-19 outbreak.
1. Review current employee handbook and employment contracts.
It would be prudent to review any existing employee handbooks and employment contracts to ascertain whether there is anything contractually which could be useful for the employer to rely on during this period. As an example, it is common for the following to be expressly provided in employment contracts in Singapore:
- Employees are obliged to comply with lawful directions from their employer – useful to consider in the event the employer wants to direct the employee to restrict travel or to have their temperature checked;
- Working hours and location - useful to consider in the event "work from home" policies are initiated; and
- Termination / summary dismissal clauses - useful to consider in the event the employee does not abide by directions of the employee or does not attend work during this period.
2. Provide a safe environment for employees.
Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe environment for their employees to work in. Apart from common law which imposes a duty of care on employers to take reasonably practicable measures to ensure the safety and health of their employees, the Workplace Safety and Health Act (Chapter 354A of Singapore) also expressly requires employers to ensure the safety and health of their employees in the workplace, so far as reasonably practicable. For starters, employers should therefore ensure the workplace is kept clean and sanitised, and if possible, to arrange for masks and hand sanitisers to be readily available to employees.
3. Familiarise yourself with the advisories, notices, guidelines and regulations issued by the various governmental agencies which are relevant to your organisation (i.e. Ministry of Health of Singapore, Ministry of Manpower of Singapore, etc.).
These advisories, notices, guidelines and regulations provide for suggested and compulsory measures, for employers and employees to follow. Employers should ensure that employees are aware of these advisories, notices, guidelines and regulations, and that they comply with them as much as possible. These are also regularly updated so it is important to check the relevant websites often.
4. Step up of business continuity plans and prepare for widespread community transmission.
Employers may consider implementing split team arrangements, flexible working arrangements (including allowing employees to work from home), frequent temperature screening of employees and office visitors, ensuring that the office is cleaned in line with the governmental agencies' guidelines and ensuring that employees who are feeling unwell leave office immediately to see a doctor. Employers should clearly communicate their business continuity plans and other measures implemented to their employees.
5. Obtain health and travel declarations from employees.
The declaration forms should require employees to declare whether they have travelled to mainland China, South Korea or any other high risk countries within the past 14 days or if employees have any upcoming travel plans to mainland China, South Korea or any other high risk countries.
6. Ensure that employees comply with any legal obligations imposed by the various governmental agencies.
Legal obligations imposed include leave of absence, stay-home notice and quarantine order. Employers should ensure that employees on leave of absence and stay-home notice remain contactable during such periods.
Additionally, employers are required to request and obtain the Ministry of Manpower's prior approval before work pass holders (with travel history to restricted areas within the last 14 days) return to Singapore.
Employers and employees who are found to be in breach of any legal obligations or compulsory measures may face severe penalties. As an example, in Singapore, the governmental agencies have (i) revoked work passes of employees and the Singapore permanent residency of a foreign individual; and (ii) suspended the work pass privileges of employers.
7. Cancel or postpone employees' travel to restricted areas.
Employers should cancel or postpone all employees' travels especially to restricted areas until further notice. Teleconferencing and videoconferencing should be implemented in place of physical meetings, where possible.
8. Treat your employee's five days sick leave during this period as hospitalisation leave.
Doctors in Singapore have been advised to give five days' sick leave to patients with respiratory symptoms (i.e. fever, cough, sore throat and runny nose). Employers are encouraged to treat these five days' sick leave as part of the employee's hospitalisation leave so as to give employees more support during this period. Alternatively, if the employer would still like to deduct the five days sick leave from the employee's paid outpatient sick leave entitlement (i.e. up to 14 days) and in the event that the employee has insufficient outpatient sick leave for the year, employers are encouraged to be flexible and compassionate, and grant additional outpatient sick leave to the employee.
9. Notify the relevant authorities if one of your employees is a confirmed case.
Employers should cooperate with the Ministry of Health's contact tracing officers by providing the necessary assistance and support required and to identify anyone in the workplace who may have had close contacts with the confirmed case.
Upon being notified of the confirmed case, employers should immediately vacate and cordon off the immediate section of the workplace premises where the confirmed case worked.
Employers should also keep employees updated on the latest developments and reassure them that proper measures are being taken to ensure their well-being.