The outbreak of coronavirus disease, officially named COVID-19, was first detected in Wuhan (China) on December 31, 2019. As the outbreak continues to spread outside China, on January 30, 2020, it has been declared as a global emergency concern by the World Health Organization.
The Covid-19 has already affected Europe and is creating challenging situations when managing work activities. Companies must be extremely mindful when fulfilling their health and safety prevention obligations and watch out for possible economic impacts this may have on productivity and/or the organization of the Company.
Business travels to countries potentially affected.
First, before traveling abroad, companies need to consult the information on travel recommendations to certain countries, regularly updated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Second, companies should review their decisions regarding relocated employees. It is convenient that companies organize as soon as possible the return of those employees that are temporarily displaced to high risk countries (as long as it is possible and there is no impediment to travel).
Employees are entitled to refuse to travel to such countries with potential health issues, and the company will not be able to sanction them for this reason, as it is an issue that directly affects their health.
If companies don’t take the necessary preventive measures for employees’ traveling to places with potential risk of infection, the developed disease can have the legal consideration of “professional contingency”. This has been confirmed by Spanish case law, which states that the effects on the health that a relocated employee can suffer for risks associated with infectious diseases could be considered as professional contingencies. In addition, the company could also be liable for not having acted properly from a health and safety perspective.
Preventing Measures for Employers.
It is recommended that Companies design and develop a Contingency Plan. This Plan should include a formal and written procedure that indicates the actions to be taken against specific risks. For example, the Plan should include the necessary functions that are considered absolutely essential to guarantee a minimum productivity of the company; it is advisable to offer teleworking options whenever possible; companies are urged to substitute as much as possible business trips for video conferencing/calls, as well as to discuss with the health and safety department those hygienic measures that can be useful. In this regard, the World Health Organization has established a guide with basic protective measures against the new coronavirus, and these include the following recommendations:
- Wash your hands frequently;
- Maintain physical distance (1 meter/3 feet at least) between anyone who is coughing or sneezing;
- Avoid touching oneself eyes, nose and mouth;
- Practice respiratory hygiene;
- In case of fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early;
- Stay informed and follow advice given by your healthcare provider; and
- In case of persons who are in or have recently visited (during the past 14 days) areas where COVID-19 is present, they should stay at home if they feel unhealthy. In case of fever, coughing and having difficulty in breathing, medical advice needs to be sought for promptly, as this may be due to a respiratory infection or other serious condition.
Economic impact in companies
It should also be considered that if the outbreak continues to spread, it can have an effect on employees, company suppliers and/or customers, thus limiting their operational capability, purchase of supplies and business opportunities.
To avoid or, at least relieve negative effects, our legal system provides some measures that companies can take in case of economic, technical, organizational or production problems or “due to force majeure” (as it is in the case of an epidemic).
This option is included in Article 47 of the Workers’ Statute and allows the suspension of employee contracts or the reduction of their work time between ten and seventy percent of the working day, calculated on the basis of a daily, weekly, monthly or annual working time. Therefore, a company whose part of its production depends on China or on other affected areas (for example, because one of the raw materials of their product comes from there) could take such measures.
This procedure, which will be applicable whatever the number of employees of the company and the number of affected ones, shall start with its communication to the Labor Authority and, simultaneously, the opening of a period of consultations with legal workers’ representatives, with a duration of no more than fifteen days. However, these are temporary measures that can only be retained during the time of risk.
For more information on these articles or any other issues involving labour and employment matters in Spain, please contact Iván Suarez (Partner) of Suárez de Vivero at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.suarezdevivero.com.