The spread of the coronavirus gives rise to similar issues globally for employers: these include assessing the risks faced by their staff and professionals whilst at work and developing measures to control such risks, complying with local laws and guidance, identifying how much flexibility employers have to adapt their working arrangements to ensure business continuity, and special measures to protect vulnerable employees.
Issues may be similar globally, but solutions vary from country to country, depending on local circumstances and guidance.
All employers, including law firms, need to regularly monitor the situation, taking guidance from governments in their locations and also from international bodies such as the World Health Organization and notifying public health bodies, if any of their workers are suspected of being ill. In Italy, public health bodies, and not employers directly, are entitled to carry out sanitary checks on employees.
Law firms also need to consider whether their existing arrangements for protecting staff and visitors from harm take account of the risk arising from the virus. This may entail conducting a risk assessment to identify the likelihood of staff contracting the virus whilst at work and appropriate measures to control that risk.
Special measures are now advisable for dealing with vulnerable staff such as those with impaired immunity, those who are pregnant, or those who have a public-facing role.
Employers should also consider implementing a proportionate response, which may need to be reviewed regularly if the outbreak continues to spread, or new government guidance is issued. This includes reviewing workplace policies such as those governing health reporting; office and personal hygiene; social distancing; and the use of protective equipment.
In light of recent decrees issued by the Italian government, measures include: suspending non-essential travel and promoting work from remote for employees and professionals as well as paid leave and vacation; encouraging the sanitation of offices; requiring employees and professionals to report any symptoms; or requiring employees turning from a high-risk area to remain at home for a period of time.
Law firms need to adapt their working arrangements to improve operational resilience in case of staff absences or changes in demand for their products or services. First steps may include assessing the employer’s rights to require staff to work flexibly; asking them to perform different duties or work remotely, which in Italy is called smart working. In our country, the smart working rules have been modified to facilitate implementation by all employers. Smart working is now applicable also in the absence of the – otherwise mandatory – relevant written agreement and is replaced by mere email communication. This measure is temporary.
Staff may also seek additional flexibility if they have difficulty attending work, for example, because they are caring for dependents, or schools are shut or transport is disrupted. In these situations law firms need to respond in a proportionate, reasonable, and consistent manner.
Law firms will need to consider how they will respond to a range of situations including those where staff are willing but unable to work, due to being quarantined or unable to travel; or they are able but unwilling to work because they are concerned about the risks of travelling or being in the workplace.
In the latter case law offices in Italy are still operating and not forced to close by government orders; therefore staff are required to work normally, although with the implementation of all the above-mentioned measures and, in particular, smart working.
In some cases, local laws or government guidance may indicate when it is appropriate to continue paying staff who are absent, for example, if they are quarantined. In this period at the peak of the emergency, the Italian government is also studying measures to provide economic support for employers forced to suspend their activity.
For staff who are unwell, their contract or local laws will usually define their entitlement to sick pay. While the need to travel frequently is a characteristic of the legal profession, it is now generally avoided.
Eversheds Sutherland managing partners work in relation to guidance, again having regard to advice from the authorities, following government guidance and providing appropriate support review how best to protect staff and professionals, especially when tailored guidance and support may be appropriate. Further considerations include whether measures are in place to deal with staff being quarantined or falling ill.
In Italy travel is now forbidden, unless for proven indispensable business needs, and meetings are normally conducted by video link. Again, the key is to be proportionate, reasonable and consistent, and to ensure that local partners and professionals are trained on those principles.
In conclusion, it is essential for all employers, including law firms, to keep abreast of government guidance and adapt their plans accordingly. The key is to plan ahead, thereby enabling professionals to be well prepared to support their staff and to maximise the resilience of their business.