Why businesses need to be diligent when dealing with long Covid absences

Long Covid is likely to be a growing problem for business owners and they must be diligent when dealing with staff members who are off sick as a result of the condition, according to an employment lawyer.

Once a person is classed as having a disability, the onus is then on their employer to make “reasonable adjustments”, says Charlotte Geesin.

Charlotte Geesin, head of employment law at Howarths, says employers having to deal with general sickness absences can face “huge issues” such as covering staff, potential unfair dismissal claims and additional costs.

However, when dealing with absences that relate to disability there are additional legal obligations to contend with.

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She said: “Essentially, anything which is a physical or mental impairment that is long term, so lasts 12 months or more, and which has that significant negative impact on the ability to do day-to-day activities is capable of being classed as a disability.”

There isn’t a need for a formal diagnosis. Long Covid just needs to be recognised as being present.

Ms Geesin added: “If somebody has long Covid and say they have had it for six or nine months but their doctor thinks that they are probably going to continue having it for more than 12 months, then they could be afforded that protection under the Equality Act at six or nine months because of that potential for it to continue.”

Once a person is classed as having a disability, the onus is then on their employer to make “reasonable adjustments”.

“Employers who don’t make reasonable adjustments can find themselves liable in a tribunal to a specific separate claim for that failure to make reasonable adjustments,” Ms Geesin says.

One of the key adjustments will be allowing the employee more time to recover rather than taking action right now, according to the employment lawyer.

Ms Geesin said: “In reality, it could be anything and everything. Typical ones will probably be allowing more time to pass for the employees to recover so don’t take action now, give it another three or six month and see if the employee gets better.

“It might be adjusting duties. It might be reducing hours or reducing days or acknowledging the fact that someone might be able to come into work in the morning but then need to go home very suddenly in the afternoon if they start feeling tired or poorly.”

She believes there is a “very high” likelihood of businesses encountering long Covid with the number of cases rising.

The employment lawyer has written a paper on the wider impacts of long Covid on businesses.

An estimated 945,000 people in the UK, 1.46 per cent of the population, were experiencing self-reported long Covid, according to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

If an employer feels that an absence can no longer be sustained and they need the employee back at work then there needs to be a three-tiered investigation.

The organisation needs to communicate with the employee throughout the absence, communicate with their doctor and involve occupational health.

Ms Geesin said: “It’s occupational health that generally provides employers with a more meaningful report because their job is to specifically comment on reasonable adjustments.

“They will take into account the employee’s comments. The medical report and the employer’s views on what is needed from this employee going forward.

“They will also take into account the employer’s views on what adjustments they can and can’t sustain.”

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