Workers at risk because of ‘essential job’ confusion

On 23 March Boris Johnson made it clear only essential workers are to leave their homes to work, but some non-essential workers are still being made to work

Many employees are still leaving their homes to go to work because they are afraid of being dismissed or not getting paid.

There is confusion among the public and employers over what constitutes essential roles.

Speaking to HR magazine, Kate Ledwidge, senior associate at law firm JMW Solicitors, said: “The government guidance was clear that if there is any way you can stay at home, and not travel into work you should not do so for the protection of public health.”

Companies such as Homebase, The Range and Halfords have insisted that their workers be deemed as essential in order to stay open and keep trading during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, has called on the government to provide urgent clarification on what is essential work.

“While guidance to individuals has been to minimise social contact and movement outside home, the lack of clarity on what counts as essential work is creating too much ambiguity for employers.

“This is exacerbated by the still-awaited support initiatives for the self-employed and contract workers,” said Cheese.

Ledwidge explained if employers are forcing workers to come in to perform non-critical roles it could potentially lead to a legal claim from a health and safety perspective or even constructive dismissal.

“This would be particularly the case for businesses that the government has specifically told to close – e.g. clothes shops, beauty salons, restaurants and gyms,” said Ledwidge.

Some industries, such as construction, are unclear on what they should do.

Work on the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail network for example is currently under review for suspension as site workers may be unable to keep an acceptable distance apart.

Sites at Euston and Old Oak Common in London have temporarily halted operations.

Ledwidge said: “Businesses have been told that they can keep sites open if they can work safely with social distancing, but putting this into practice is proving difficult particularly on the commute into work on the Tube in London.

“Also, this makes the guidance for self-employed workers such as plumbers and electricians difficult – what is an essential versus a non-essential plumbing job, for example?” she questioned.

Retail company Sports Direct initially said it would remain open but decided not to after public backlash.

Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the shop workers' trade union USDAW, commented: "I can't see how it [Sports Direct] is an essential service. It's a sports clothing company.

"In my mind an essential service would include food and medicine and the supply chain around that, as well as the National Health Service.”

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of retail lobby group the British Retail Consortium, said many shops have already closed temporarily.

"Any retailers that remain open will be following the very latest government public health guidance to ensure they do everything they can to ensure the safety of customers and staff," she said.

Retailers have implemented their own measures to protect employees and customers.

Waitrose is operating a queuing system that ensures people stand two metres apart until they can enter the store. Some supermarkets have also added plastic barriers at checkouts.

Other retailers have been limiting how many people are allowed into the shop at one time and asking customers to stand away from the tills until it is their turn to be served.

Many businesses are also asking customers not to pay with cash.