UNISON Northern Ireland

Coronavirus: your rights at work

As the COVID-19 virus spreads, find out what your rights at work are if taking sick leave or self-isolating.

We have received an increasing number of enquiries on what employers – and members – should do to minimise the risk of infection at this worrying time.

The issues and risks will vary depending on the sector you are working in, so UNISON has been proactive in negotiating jointly agreed advice in a number of sectors.

For general advice on COVID-19 see the Public Health England (PHE) blog.

What should I do if I believe I may have the symptoms of, or have had close contact with someone who has had, COVID-19?

In either circumstance, employers should encourage employees to self-isolate, and stay away from work. You should normally call NHS 111 for advice, except in an emergency, when you should ring 999.

Until a case is confirmed, current advice is that the employer need not apply special restrictions or special control measures. There is also no need to close the workplace.

Can my employer make me self-isolate?

Yes, your employer can instruct you not to attend your workplace.

If I have to self-isolate, will I be paid?

The health secretary has sent guidance to employers telling them staff who have been asked to self-isolate are entitled to take the time as sick leave,

Although this would be good practice, and has already been agreed for NHS staff and the majority of local government staff, this in itself does not guarantee that staff will get sick leave as a matter of course.

Speak to your UNISON branch if you are concerned your employer is not following the guidance.

Sick pay for coronavirus

Statutory sick pay is now available from the first day you are off sick, and if you are paid less than  £118 a week you will be able to access Universal Credit or Contributory Employment and Support Allowance more easily.

Unfortunately, if you’re on a zero-hours contract you are not entitled to statutory sick pay, unless you can demonstrate that you earn at least £118 per week from your employer.

We are urging the government to help those on zero-hours contracts.

If you get contractual sick pay (a rate agreed by your employer), it is good practice to ensure that such absence is not counted towards any sickness absence policy triggers. This has been agreed for NHS staff and the majority of local government staff (ie those covered by national joint council (NJC) terms and conditions.)

Further information on pay, terms and conditions

Specific guidance for those working in the NHS

Advice to local government staff covered by NJC terms and conditions is available at the NJC website. Local government members in Scotland can download advice here

What should my employer do if a case of COVID-19 is confirmed in the workplace?

If an employee or anyone else who has visited your workplace is confirmed as having the virus, your employer will be contacted by their local PHE health protection team to discuss the case, identify people who have been in contact with them, and advise on any actions or precautions that should be taken.

What protective equipment should I be getting from my employer?

This will depend on what you do, with whom, and where you are working. Your employer must carry out a full risk assessment and provide you with all the specialist training and the personal protective equipment (PPE) (gowns/aprons, masks, gloves, etc) that you may require.

The government has provided advice for a variety of occupations and settings.

These include staff providing care for patients in secondary care (nursing and residential care homes, home care).

This guidance recommends that staff caring for patients with confirmed COVID-19 or suspected cases undergoing “aerosol generating procedure” should be provided with FFP3 respirator, disposable eye protection (preferably visor), long-sleeved disposable gown and gloves.

Staff caring for a patient with unconfirmed cases should be provided with fluid-resistant surgical mask, gloves, apron and eye protection if there’s a risk of splashing into the eyes.

Cleaning in non-healthcare (including educational settings)

If you are cleaning an area where there have been possible or confirmed cases, you should as a minimum be provided with disposable gloves and apron. Hands should be washed with soap and water after all PPE has been removed.

Where a higher level of contamination may have been present (for example, where unwell individuals have slept such as a hotel room or boarding school dormitory, or where there is visible contamination with body fluids), then the need for additional PPE such as a surgical face mask and full-face visor should be considered. The local health protection team will advise on this.

Gov.uk advice on cleaning in non-healthcare settings.

What should UNISON branches do if cleaning or other services are contracted out to private companies?

Branches should ensure that contracted out staff receive the same protections and rights, as far as possible, as those employed directly. This may involve initiating discussions with the main employer as well as with the contractor to ensure a joined-up approach is taken for the benefit of both service users and staff.

What else do I need to know to keep my patients, clients, pupils and colleagues safe?

Staff working in the NHS should read the specific advice for health workers.

The Department for Education has a new helpline for questions related to the virus and education for staff, parents and young people. Please call 0800 046 8687. Lines open 8am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.

The government has published general advice for educational settings, including what to do if children, pupils, students or staff become unwell and believe they have been exposed to COVID-19

Universities UK is providing updated advice for the higher education sector on the coronavirus on their webpages. UNISON is approaching the national employers asking for urgent discussions to develop more detailed advice for staff.

The government has also provided advice for social or community care and residential settings, including what to do if colleagues or residents are being tested for COVID-19, and what to do if cases are confirmed.

Local authorities should be reminded that they still have a responsibility – even where care services have been contracted out.

Additional advice

See the full list of the government’s advice on COVID-19.

Countries and regions

There is advice from the Welsh government and also advice from advice for members in Northern Ireland.

There is general advice for members in Scotland from the Scottish government.

There is also advice available from Acas.

  • Updated: 12 March 2020.