Can you refuse to go back to work if you're worried about coronavirus – your rights explained

WORKERS are expected to be told to go back to offices by Boris Johnson today, but what are your rights if you're worried about coronavirus?

It comes as the Prime Minister is planning to lay out his roadmap on how workers can safely return after last week encouraging staff to stop working from home and to head back to offices.

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It's thought Mr Johnson will also relax rules on using public transport to enable workers to head back, although it's expected face masks will continue be mandatory in England.

But do you have to return to work if you're worried about coronavirus? And what happens if you've contracted the virus or showing symptoms?

Crucially, Michael Newman, partner at law firm Leigh Day says government guidance doesn't change your employment rights.

He said: "Government guidance doesn't change your employment rights.

"It can guide, encourage or persuade workers to go back but it doesn't change the law unless the government changes the Employment Rights Act, for example." 

We outline your rights below.

Can my boss sack me?

IF you refuse to go back into work and you have don't have reasonable grounds for doing, such as a health reason, your employer can sack you.

But if you've worked for your employer for two years or more you may, however, have grounds to take your company to an employment tribunal if you think you've been unfairly dismissed.

Equally, if you think you've been dismissed because of discriminatory reasons, such as your age, race, gender or because of a disability, then you may have grounds for a discrimination claim.

It is automatically unfair to be dismissed because you took action about a health and safety issue.

It's worth pointing out that being dismissed is different to being made redundant. You can be sacked or made redundant even while on furlough.

See Citizens Advice or speak to your trade union representative for more information.

What do employers need to do to keep workers safe?

Employers are now required by law to ensure they do whatever possible to keep workers safe from coronavirus and to minimise the risk of contracting the infection.

Charity Citizens Advice explains that this means reducing how much face-to-face contact you have with the public, as well as ensuring staff can safely social distance in the workplace.

Mr Newman adds that employers should also have conducted a risk assessment, as well as looked at whether to introduce one-way systems, and provide PPE where necessary.

I'm worried about coronavirus, do I have to return to the office?

Mr Newman told us employers are within their rights to tell you where they'd like you to work.

So unless you can provide a good reason for not returning – see below for more on this – you will need to go back to the office.

Citizens Advice points out that there may be other options you could take.

For example, if you were furloughed before June 11, 2020 you can ask to be furloughed again.

Workers returning from maternity leave, adoption leave, paternity leave, shared parental leave or parental bereavement leave can also be furloughed for the first time.

You might also want to consider using some of your annual leave to take paid time off.

What if I have concerns over using public transport?

One of the current coronavirus conditions employers must consider is letting you travel to work at quieter times of the day.

The idea is that this should mitigate the risk of catching coronavirus on public transport.

But Mr Newman told us that given the government's guidelines on social distancing and wearing masks on public transport you'd find it very hard to argue you can't go into work.

Again, there may be exceptions to this though as we explain below.

Do I have to return if I'm shielding, vulnerable or showing symptoms?

We don't know yet if the government will change its guidelines on shielding, but currently if you're considered to be "extremely vulnerable" you need to avoid face-to-face contact with others and stay at home for 12 weeks.

If you can work from home while shielding you should, but if you can't you can stay at home.

In this scenario, Mr Newman says staff should be paid in full or furloughed given they're available and willing to work otherwise.

Others who may be considered vulnerable but who aren't shielding include pregnant people, over 70s, and those who live with someone who is extremely vulnerable.

In this scenario you may have a case to argue that you can't come back to the office or you can't travel on public transport to the office.

If your employer won't agree to this, Mr Newman says you may have grounds to bring either an unfair dismissal or discrimination claim to an employment tribunal.

Citizens Advice points out that if you're pregnant, your employer also has an extra responsibility to make changes to your job so it’s safe for you to keep working.

If it can’t make changes to make sure you’re safe, it could give you a different role to do.

For those showing symptoms of coronavirus you should self-isolate for at least seven days and you shouldn't go to work or even leave your home. See the NHS website for more on what to do.

What if I need to stay at home and look after children or others?

If you look after children or other vulnerable people, you might want to consider whether you can do your job flexibly. For example, you might be able to work:

  • from home
  • at times that suit you, such as evenings or weekends
  • on different tasks than usual
  • fewer hours

Some employers let you buy extra days of annual leave, which you could also consider using.

If you need to look after children and you’ve worked for your employer for at least a year, you can also have unpaid parental leave for each of your children.

You get 18 weeks for each child until they’re 18, so that's four weeks' leave per year. Your child’s other parent can also take 18 weeks.

But Citizens Advice points out you also have to tell your employer 21 days before you want to be off work, and you also can’t take parental leave if you’re furloughed.

All workers are also entitles to unpaid time off to deal with unexpected problems or emergencies with a dependant. The time off has to be "reasonable". 

If you can’t work flexibly, don't qualify for parental leave, or need more time off than for an emergency Citizens Advice says the best way to keep your job is to ask for unpaid leave with no fixed end date.

This is called "indefinite unpaid leave".

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