Updated: Jul 13, 2020
More than 500 cases of COVID-19 have so far been confirmed in the country as per the Indian Council of Medical Research. COVID-19 has called for some emergency measures such as lockdown of certain states and districts, complete halting of transportation services including rail and air travel and sealing international borders. In such times when a pandemic has brought us to a complete stop, how can companies and organizations function? How can employers ensure that their employees are out of the harm’s way, while balancing their health and safety interests? These are some pertinent questions which are being constantly asked. We bring to you today, a ready reckoner with responses to all the questions you may have with respect to COVID-19.
1. We have seen many states issue lockdown notifications. What does this mean? Is there any legal basis for this lockdown?
COVID-19 has been classified as a pandemic by the WHO and an epidemic by many Indian states. The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 (“Epidemic Act”) authorizes the central and state governments to take any necessary step to prevent the outbreak of an epidemic. On March 22, 2020, the central government issued a notification wherein 75 districts across the country were directed to go on lockdown. These districts include some of the metro cities of India such as Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad. Separately state governments too are announcing lockdowns in their respective states. We shall discuss the key features of these lockdowns in the states of Maharashtra, New Delhi, Karnataka, Haryana, Telangana below:
All private companies and establishments are required to be completely shut down.
Certain essential services including inter alia banks, media, IT services which are required for the continuity of essential services, e-commerce pertaining to food delivery etc. may remain open.
All private/public employers have been advised not to terminate their employees especially casual/contract workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.
If any employee takes leave on account of COVID-19 outbreak, then there should not be any deduction in their wages.
If the place of work becomes non-operational, then too the employees would be deemed to be on duty.
All non-essential services offices to function at 50% of their capacity.
In Pune, as per the Pune administration, meeting of 5 or more persons is not allowed.
National Capital Territory
All shops, commercial establishments and offices are required to close their operations.
Transport services such as buses and metro are to remain suspended.
All construction activity to be suspended.
People are required to come out only for essential services.
All private sector offices are to allow their employees to work from home.
Employees of private and public establishments who are required to stay at home shall be considered as being on duty and be paid in full.
Congregation of more than five persons is prohibited.
All private offices are to close operations.
Essential services such as manufacturing units, e-commerce for food delivery etc. to remain open and hence private establishments pertaining to the same to also remain open.
All non-essential shops and commercial establishments to remain closed.
All labour intensive industries to work at 50% of their strength. Employers are advised not to remove any worker on this account and sanction paid leaves if required.
All employees of IT and biotechnology units are required to work from home.
Additionally, infected employees covered within the ESI Act to get 28 days of leave with wages on submitting certain declarations. Those not covered under the ESI Act entitled to get 28 days of paid sick leave along with other leave.
All shops, commercial establishments, offices, factories etc. are required to close their operations.
Only essential services to remain open.
Apart from the states, central government too has taken some major steps to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 and has issued certain advisories/notifications to the employers:
Deadlines of certain compliances such as filing annual returns under certain labour laws has been extended by the central government to April 30, 2020 in view of COVID-19. No legal action would be taken for non-filing or late filing of annual returns.
Central government issued an advisory, wherein all state governments are requested to advise the public/private employers of their respective states to not terminate the services of their employees or reduce their wages.
Leaves should be paid and the worker availing of such leave should be deemed to be on duty.
If the employment is made non-operational due to COVID-19, then too the employee shall be deemed to be on duty.
ESIC has extended the date for payment of contribution for the months of February and March to April 15, 2020 and May 15, 2020.
Ministry of Corporate affairs has also extended time limits for holding board meetings, physical meetings etc. to June, 2020. A CAR-2020 portal has been launched to help all employers to submit compliance report.
2. What are my responsibilities as an employer during these times? As an employer, you need to keep the following things in mind:
If you do not fall within the essential services category which include, provision of drinking water, media, manufacturing unit, e-commerce for food/grocery delivery etc. then give all your employees a mandate to work from home, subject to your particular state’s requirements as mentioned above.
An employer is typically responsible for occupational safety and health of their employees. The proposed Occupational Health Safety Bill also talks about a workplace which is free from all health hazard. Hence, it is the duty of an employer to ensure that in coming to work, his/her employee do not face any undue health hazard.
As per the directives given above, employers in Maharashtra and employers of labour intensive units in Karnataka cannot fire workers/employees during the period of COVID-19 outbreak.
Do not tell employees to take paid leave to work from home. Especially, in the light of the aforementioned notifications, you are required to provide work from home as the employee being on duty and pay him/her their due wages.
Stay updated with the latest notifications, directives or any other orders from the central or state government which may require you to take additional measures.
If your organization belongs to one of the essential services, where employees are not mandatorily required to work from home then, you can take the following steps:
Any employee with a foreign travel history should be told to self-quarantine. If he/she was abroad due to a work trip then his/her wages should not be deducted on account of such quarantine.
Thermal screening or asking employees for medical certificates.
Do not ask them to travel abroad for work trips at the moment.
Promote good workplace hygiene and regularly educate your employees on ways to prevent getting infected and spreading the infection. 3. Can an employer prevent the entry of a COVID-19 infected person in the office premises?
Yes, the employer is entitled to prevent the entry of a COVID-19 infected person in the office premises to protect the health of the rest of its employees.
4. Does an employer need to revamp his/her leave policy?
As stated above, in Karnataka, infected persons are entitled to a mandatory 28-days’ paid leave. While, other states currently do not have such provisions, there may be a possibility of the same in the future. Typically, leave policies of employers have the wording `as per the applicable law’. If your leave policy has this wording, then it may not be necessary to change it, as it covers the recent notifications/directions. If not, then you may have to amend your leave policy suitably to reflect this wording.
5. Can I be punished, if I do not follow the center or state directive?
The Epidemic Act authorizes the states and the central government to take necessary steps to prevent the outbreak of an epidemic. It also states that anyone who violates the steps made in this regard shall be punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, which penalizes violators with 6 months’ simple imprisonment or monetary fine of INR 1000.
Hence, as a responsible employer, (i) allow your employees to work from home, especially in case of non-essential services, (ii) do not deduct wages on account of low attendance and (iii) promote workplace safety and health information amongst your employees. Most importantly, follow the directives given by your respective states.