COVID-19: Practical tips for a safe return-to-work

A leading lawyer shares key considerations for Singaporean employers planning to resume their business

COVID-19: Practical tips for a safe return-to-work

by Thomas Choo, partner, Clyde & Co

With the onset of COVID-19 cases, employers in Singapore have been advised to implement a system of safe management measures at workplaces in order to continue running their business operations, while ensuring employee well-being is safeguarded, and the risk of community spread of COVID-19 is minimised.

READ MORE: Circuit Breaker: Singapore considers a 'gradual re-opening'

Set out below is a summary of key matters with which employers in Singapore should familiarise themselves in view of the COVID-19 outbreak:

  1. Review current employee handbook and employment contracts

It would be prudent to review any existing employment contracts, employee handbooks and other employment policies to ascertain whether there is anything contractually which needs to be addressed.

For example, it is common for the following to be expressly provided in employment contracts in Singapore:

  • Employees are obliged to comply with lawful directions from their employer – Useful to consider in the event the employer wants to direct the employee to restrict travel or to have their temperature checked
  • Termination / summary dismissal clauses – Useful to consider in the event the employee does not abide by directions of the employee, refuse to attend work, is guilty of doxxing and/or breach confidential information

Employers should also review whether a ‘work from home’ policy needs to be established, to cover things like working hours, work injuries, reimbursement of expenses such as printer ink cartridges, phone bills, and ergonomic furniture, breach of confidential information in the household, and health and safety protocols.

READ MORE: Working from home to continue for 'foreseeable future'

  1. Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe environment for their employees to work in

Apart from common law which imposes a duty of care on employers to ensure the safety and health of their employees, the Workplace Safety and Health Act (Chapter 354A of Singapore) also expressly requires employers to do so in the workplace, so far as reasonably practicable.

For starters, employers should be familiar with the advisories issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), in particular those associated with safe management measures after the circuit breaker period.

  1. Familiarise yourself with the advisories, notices, guidelines and regulations issued by the various government agencies

These advisories, notices, guidelines and regulations provide for suggested and compulsory measures, for employers and employees to follow.

Employers should ensure that employees are aware of these advisories and comply with them as much as possible. These are also regularly updated so it is important to check the relevant websites often.

  1. Implement a system of safe management measures

Employers should take steps to:

  • Implement a system of safe management measures at workplaces
  • Reduce physical interaction and ensure safe distancing at workplaces
  • Support contact tracing requirements
  • Require personal protective equipment to be worn at workplaces, and encourage employees to observe good personal hygiene
  • Ensure cleanliness of workplace premises
  • Implement health checks and protocols to manage potential cases

Employers should clearly communicate these plans and other measures to their employees.

READ MORE: MOM reveals checklist for businesses to resume operations

  1. Obtain health and travel declarations

The declaration forms should require employees and visitors to declare, inter alia, whether they have travelled to high-risk countries within the past 14 days, or if employees have any upcoming travel plans to mainland China, South Korea or any other high-risk countries, and be kept for at least 28 days for inspection purposes.

  1. Ensure employees comply with any legal obligations imposed by the various government agencies

Legal obligations imposed include leave of absence, stay-home notice and quarantine order. Employers should ensure that employees on leave of absence and stay-home notice remain contactable during such periods.

Employers and employees who are found to be in breach of any legal obligations or compulsory measures may face severe penalties.

As an example, in Singapore, the government agencies have:

  • revoked work passes of employees and the Singapore permanent residency of a foreign individual
  • suspended the work pass privileges of employers
  1. Cancel or postpone employee travel to restricted areas

Employers should cancel or postpone all employees’ travels until further notice. Teleconferencing and videoconferencing should be implemented in place of physical meetings, where possible.

  1. Counting of your employee’s five days sick leave during this period

Doctors in Singapore have been advised to give five days’ sick leave to patients with respiratory symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, and runny nose.

Employers are encouraged to treat these five days’ sick leave as part of the employee’s hospitalisation leave to give employees more support during this period.

Alternatively, if the employer would still like to deduct the five days from the employee’s paid outpatient sick leave entitlement, and in the event that the employee has insufficient leave for the year, employers are encouraged to be flexible and compassionate and grant additional sick leave to the employee.

  1. Notify the relevant authorities of confirmed cases

Employers should cooperate with the Ministry of Health’s contact tracing officers by providing the necessary assistance and support required and to identify anyone in the workplace who may have had close contact with the confirmed case.

Upon being notified of the confirmed case, employers should immediately vacate and cordon off the immediate section of the workplace premises where the individual worked.

Employers should also keep employees updated on the latest developments and reassure them that proper measures are being taken to ensure their well-being.

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