12 March 2020 by , and Employment Alert

Coronavirus and the workplace: What to do?

On 5 March 2020, South African Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, confirmed the first incident of COVID-19, commonly known as the corona virus in South Africa. This is likely to create a panic in workplaces across the country because of the way in which the virus spreads. What do we know so far?

Corona virus spreads through:

  • coughing or sneezing;
  • close personal contact; and
  • touching an object or surface on which the virus is found.

The advent of the virus will most likely result in employees wanting to work remotely and take extended leave because of the virus. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act 75 of 1997 has a closed list of recognised forms of leave – sick leave, family responsibility leave, adoption leave, annual leave and paternity leave – with the exception of annual leave, none of these forms of leave accommodate employees who do not wish to report for fear of contracting a virus. Sick leave should only apply to employees who are showing symptoms of the virus (i.e. actually sick) as opposed to those who fear contracting the virus.

If the virus escalates, employers across the country may be required to consider flexible working arrangements such as – allowing employees to work remotely instead of reporting to the office, and even limiting traveling for employees. The option of remote working will be subject to operational requirements of that particular employer.

Also, the option of remote working is only open to a small percentage of South African employees – retailing, banking and fast-moving company goods companies cannot afford to extend the same arrangement. In those instances, the employers should consider the following questions:

Employers must be proactive and take charge and encourage calm. These are some ideas:

  1. Does the threat of infection have the potential of impacting or affecting organisational culture?

Human touch is part of everyday work life, therefore, organisational culture such as human interactions, and handshakes amongst other things will likely decrease.

Therefore, launching a hygiene campaign, including instructional guides on how to wash hands effectively and keeping an employee’s workspace clean and hygienic is an option.

  1. Can employees wear a face mask to work?

Unlike industries such as mining and firefighting where protective clothing is a requirement, employers are not legally obliged to provide masks.

Therefore, wearing face masks to work would be at the employer’s discretion and informed by its risk to exposure to the virus.

In conclusion, employers need to be proactive in their efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus. Subtle changes in workplace culture such as declaring the workplace a handshake free environment and creating awareness for visitors, clients and other external stakeholders to manage expectations are an option. For those employees experiencing symptoms the virus, the employer may encourage those employees to wear masks as a precautionary measure. This is dependent on the prevalence of the virus across the country.

At the time of publishing this article, there was only one reported incident in the country.

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