Companies must review and adapt their policies as soon as possible to prepare for the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.
This has been the warning sounded by legal experts this week, against a backdrop of increasing numbers of South Africans contracting the virus and companies beginning to look at allowing people to work from home.
“Companies may have to begin looking at granting extra sick leave for special circumstances, which Covid-19 undoubtedly is,” said attorney Anli Bezuidenhout, a senior associate specialising in employment law at legal firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.
According to Bezuidenhout and advocate Jackie Nagtegaal of legal insurance firm Law for All, an employee’s sick leave must be used if they are required to go into quarantine as a result of coming into contact with the virus.
“It is also important to take into account that South Africa’s current sick-leave system does not provide for employees to remain at home for between 14 and 21 days [the recommended quarantine period], on the employer’s insistence, without pay.”
Nagtegaal warns that employees cannot take sick leave if they decide to remain at home and not to go to work.
“In that case, the time will have to be deducted from your normal leave or you will have to take unpaid leave.”
Bezuidenhout says the Occupational Health and Safety Act requires employers to create a safe working environment for employees.
“That is why they can do things like measure your temperature before you enter the building to go to work. But it will still be your choice as the employee whether you want to submit to it or not. You may not be forced.
“At all times, employees and employers need to communicate well and remember that requests and recommendations need to be practical and reasonable.
“Depending on the nature of your work, no employer is, for example, obliged to provide face masks, while things like soap and water to wash your hands, and keeping the workplace clean, are a basic minimum requirement for hygiene.”
A very practical recommendation would be to ask workers to work from home where possible.
Naturally, there are exceptions, such as banking, where it is not possible for workers to work from home.
Spokespeople from Standard Bank, Absa, FNB, Nedbank and Capitec said that all systems were in place to prevent any interruption in operations as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Ross Linstrom, spokesperson for Standard Bank, said: “We have instituted processes and steps which are reviewed and updated on a regular basis to ensure that our employees are safe at all times and can do their jobs properly in exceptional circumstances such as these.”
Absa spokesperson Liezl Squier said: “We can assure our clients that we are taking all the necessary steps to ensure that our bank and employees are informed, and that we are doing everything within our power to ensure that the virus does not break out among our employees or in any of our branches.”
It is understood from a reliable, anonymous source that banks have even gone as far as dividing their employees into groups – and then placing one group in self-isolation, so that workers from that group can be employed if anyone from the other group is placed in quarantine and is no longer able to work.