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Prudent employers should plan for the worst

We are living and working in unprecedented times. Employers in many industries are considering drastic decisions they would not have dreamed of a few days or weeks ago. And it seems that things will get worse before they start to get better. While businesses will hope for the best, it would be prudent to plan for the worst, writes Lisa Bryson, Partner, Employment and Immigration, Eversheds Sutherland Belfast

Last week the Government announced its recommendations to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the UK, including Northern Ireland. Alongside all of the guidance and steps we have already become very accustomed to, the key element of the next phase is to focus on ‘social distancing’.

In terms of business, the Government have asked for people to work from home where possible and for employers to support this. Of course, not all work or business can transition to remote working. Therefore, it is important that every business considers its core functions, the components of each part of the business and its own requirements, and to identify whether or not there are ways in which social distancing can be introduced in the workplace – staggered start and finish or lunch times, for example.

These unprecedented times will require communities to pull together and employers and employees to work in tandem to seek to find novel ways of weathering the COVID-19 storm together.

There is no doubt that difficult times lie ahead. And that employers will have to make some difficult decisions.

The timing of this health crisis coincides with the end of the financial year for many businesses and in turn decisions on salary increases and bonuses. In light of the situation and to reduce cost pressures, businesses may have to consider deferring such increases in the interim to assist with the longer-term sustainability of the business. If the business does ride out the storm then these increases can be introduced later.

Another potential consideration may be to seek volunteers for unpaid leave or a reduced working week. This would deliver some cost saving and may be a workable solution for some employees when the schools close. If it is apparent that the only alternative is potential job losses at a later stage, some employees just might be prepared to consider this. 

Temporary lay-offs and short-time working are other contractual alternatives that have already been implemented across some sectors in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately however, the last resort for some businesses may be the implementation of redundancies. Depending on the numbers, employers will be obliged to consult collectively with appropriate representatives of employees affected.

If 20+ redundancies are proposed within a 90-day period, consultation should last for 30 days and if proposals impact 100+ people this consultation should last for 90 days in Northern Ireland. However, this consultation period can be dispensed with where “special circumstances” apply. While the test of what constitutes a special circumstance is difficult to meet, the current situation may arguably fall within the definition.

No employer wants to have to take any of these steps, but some industries already find themselves in the position of having no other option. With no end in sight, this inevitably means that some tough decisions are going to have to be made.