Can you refuse to go back to work if you’re worried about coronavirus – your rights explained


WORKERS have been told to go back to offices by Boris Johnson today, but what are your rights if you’re worried about coronavirus?

The Prime Minister has today laid out his roadmap on how workers can safely return from August 1.

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Mr Johnson has also relaxed rules on using public transport to enable workers to head back, although the guidance on wearing face masks hasn’t changed.

It comes after the Prime Minister last week encouraged staff to stop working from home and to head back to offices.

But do you have to return to work if you’re worried about coronavirus? And what happens if you’ve contracted the virus or you’re showing symptoms?

Matthew Bradbury, employment expert at Citizens Advice, said: “Many people will understandably have questions about how they can get back to work and feel safe.

“It is important to talk through any concerns with your employer as soon as possible so that you can reach a solution that works for both of you, and allows you to feel safe when returning to work.” 

But crucially, Michael Newman, partner at law firm Leigh Day says government guidance doesn’t change your employment rights.

He said: “Government guidance doesn’t change your employment rights.

“The government can guide, encourage or persuade workers to go back but it doesn’t change the law unless the government changes the Employment Rights Act, for example.” 

We outline your rights below.

Employers are required by law to ensure they do whatever possible to keep workers safe from coronavirus and to minimise the risk of contracting the infection.

Charity Citizens Advice explains that this means reducing how much face-to-face contact you have with the public, as well as ensuring staff can safely social distance in the workplace.

Mr Newman from Leigh Day adds that employers should also have conducted a risk assessment, as well as looked at whether to introduce one-way systems, and provide PPE where necessary.

Mr Newman told us employers are within their rights to tell you where they’d like you to work.

So unless you can provide a good reason for not returning – see below for more on this – you will need to go back to the office.

Citizens Advice points out that there may be other options you could take.

For example, if you were furloughed before June 11, 2020 you can ask to be furloughed again.

Workers returning from maternity leave, adoption leave, paternity leave, shared parental leave or parental bereavement leave can also be furloughed for the first time.

You might also want to consider using some of your annual leave to take paid time off.

One of the current coronavirus conditions employers must consider is letting you travel to work at quieter times of the day.

The idea is that this should mitigate the risk of catching coronavirus on public transport.

But Mr Newman told us that given the government’s guidelines on social distancing and wearing masks on public transport you’d find it very hard to argue you can’t go into work due to the risk on trains and buses.

Again, there may be exceptions to this as we explain below.

From August 1, Citizens Advice says the guidance changes to say that those who are shielding can attend work if it is Covid-19 safe, but should continue to work from home if that is possible.

This means extremely clinically vulnerable people will have to weigh up the risks of using public transport if that’s the only way they can get to work.

Others who may be considered vulnerable include pregnant people, over 70s, and those who live with someone who is extremely clinical vulnerable.

In this scenario, you may have a case to argue that you can’t come back to the office or you can’t travel on public transport to the office.

You may be asked to remain working from home instead. Or you may be able to take paid leave.

If your employer won’t agree to this and it asks you to leave the company, Mr Newman says you may have grounds to bring either an unfair dismissal or discrimination claim to an employment tribunal.

Citizens Advice points out that if you’re pregnant, your employer also has an extra responsibility to make changes to your job so it’s safe for you to keep working.

If it can’t make changes to make sure you’re safe, it could give you a different role to do.

For those showing symptoms of coronavirus you should continue to self-isolate for at least seven days and you shouldn’t go to work or even leave your home. See the NHS website for more on what to do.

If you look after children or other vulnerable people, you might want to consider whether you can do your job flexibly. For example, you might be able to work:

Some employers let you buy extra days of annual leave, which you could also consider using.

If you need to look after children and you’ve worked for your employer for at least a year, you can also have unpaid parental leave for each of your children.

You get 18 weeks for each child until they’re 18. You can choose when to use the leave but you must take a minimum of one week at a time, unless your employer agrees otherwise, and a maximum of four weeks’ a year.

Your child’s other parent can also take 18 weeks.

But Citizens Advice points out you also have to tell your employer 21 days before you want to be off work, and you also can’t take parental leave if you’re furloughed.

All workers are also entitles to unpaid time off to deal with unexpected problems or emergencies with a dependant. The time off has to be “reasonable”. 

If you can’t work flexibly, don’t qualify for parental leave, or need more time off than for an emergency Citizens Advice says the best way to keep your job is to ask for unpaid leave with no fixed end date.

This is called “indefinite unpaid leave”.


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