SARS epidemic could create legal minefield

Employers are worried that efforts to protect their workforces from the
worldwide severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic could create a
legal minefield.

Even employment experts can’t agree what action organisations should take to
protect staff after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Hong Kong,
Toronto, Beijing and parts of China no go areas.

The UK Government wants staff returning from affected areas to spend two
weeks off work in quarantine to stop the spread of the disease – which has
already killed more than 260 people globally.

But while employment experts are urging HR directors to implement SARS
policies immediately, they disagree whether the enforced two-week absence
should be paid or unpaid.

Some experts believe that employers could face unfair dismissal claims if
staff are not on full paid leave.

Sue Nickson, head of employment at law firm Hammonds Suddards Edge, said:
"It would be unreasonable for employers to do anything but pay staff in
full for their incubation period. Otherwise staff would have possible unfair
dismissal cases."

However, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)
believes organisations are within their rights to force staff returning from
regions affected by SARS to take their quarantine time as unpaid leave.

Diane Sinclair, lead adviser on public policy at the CIPD, said: "With
staff going to affected countries, employers could argue that staff are
breaching their contract because they know they will not be able to work on
their return."

Robin Bloom, partner in the employment team at law firm Dickinson Dees, claims
employers could introduce a policy that forces staff to take the extra time off
as holiday.

"It is reasonable to introduce a policy which states that staff must
take the extra time off as holiday if they are aware before they go that they
will be ignoring WHO advice."

By Paul Nelson

What employers should do?

– Communicate with staff on the company policy, as well as
Government and WHO advice

– Make sure all staff returning from affected area stay away
from work for up to two weeks and see their GP immediately

– Poll staff on all travel plans

What is your organisation doing to
deal with the SARS epidemic?

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