Coronavirus germs

Coronavirus: your rights at work

Updated: 20 Oct 2020 at 15:50

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UNISON is working proactively with the UK governments and other bodies to keep you safe at work.

From 28 September 2020, the government’s advice is that “office workers who can work effectively from home should do so over the winter”. Please see the government’s advice for England.

Specific guidance on changes to lockdown restrictions in the devolved nations and in England can be found using the following links:

If you are working from home

From 28 September 2020, advice for office workers in England who can work effectively at home is that they should do so over the winter months.

Read our Coronavirus and home-working guidance

If you are continuing to work in your regular workplace

Public sector employees working in essential services, including education settings are continuing to go into work as necessary. As long as their employer has made their workplace safe, anyone who cannot work from home should go to their regular place of work.

If you cannot work at home you can check government advice about how to return to the workplace safely.

Your employers must have carried out a risk assessment to ensure that your workplace meets government guidelines and do everything they reasonably can to make your workplace is ‘COVID-secure’.

Up to date guidance on what employers need to do to make workplaces ‘COVID-secure’ can be found here.

Employers are legally required to do everything that they reasonably can to make the work that you do and the place where you work safe – and should consult staff and union safety reps on any proposals before you return to the workplace.

If you have concerns about attending your workplace speak to your local UNISON Rep and discuss any issues with your employer.

Employers must, in particular, consider the risks to staff who are most vulnerable to infection, so please refer to our advice for those are Black, disabled, over 70 or have an underlying health condition.

If you work in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland please refer to your own country’s advice pages.

For more information on what employers should do to keep their workplaces safe, please read our How to work safely leaflet (PDF).

What if I don’t feel my workplace is safe?

We believe that our members should never be in a situation where they might endanger themselves and others in the course of doing their jobs.

Putting you in that situation is potentially a breach of health and safety law and may spread coronavirus to people in high-risk groups.

As a last resort, when faced with a dangerous working environment which cannot reasonably be avoided, every employee has the right not to suffer detriment if they leave, or refuse to attend their place of work (or take other appropriate steps) in circumstances where they reasonably believe there is a risk of being exposed to serious and imminent danger (section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996).

Although this is very much a right of last resort, the context of a situation will be key on whether refusing to return to work or any other steps are appropriate.  This means that an employee cannot automatically refuse a reasonable instruction to return to work without a good reason.

If you feel you are being put at risk it is crucial to get advice and discuss the situation with your UNISON representative. Contact your branch and if needed you can seek advice from our regional office or legal team.

What is a risk assessment?

If you are attending your normal workplace, your employer must have undertaken a risk assessment to meet the government’s guidance on making workplaces COVID-secure.

A risk assessment is what an employer must do to keep their workers and anybody else who may use their workplaces, safe from harm and must be ‘adequate’, ‘suitable and sufficient’.

It identifies workplace hazards that are likely to cause harm to employees and visitors. COVID-19 is such a hazard and so employers must put in place measures to prevent its spread.

Employers must set out the measures they will take to address the hazards the risk assessment has identified.

Employers must identify all those for whom they have a duty of care, whether they are staff or service-users, who are classed as being either at most or moderate risk from COVID-19.

Research has shown that Black workers are at increased risk of infection, serious illness and death through COVID-19.

More detailed information about risk assessment

We need you to help us make workplaces safer: Find out how to become a Safety Rep

Risks for Black workers

We are concerned about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black workers and the wider impact on racism that the pandemic is having.

Read the interview with our Head of Equality Gloria Mills

Read further information on risk assessment and resources to support Black Staff

Our sector-based risk assessment advice also includes guidance on taking account of the increased risk to Black staff.
If you need more information please contact your branch.

We have also produced a leaflet specifically for Black workers on rights at work (PDF).

Our Black members are leading discussions around the wider issues of racism the pandemic is revealing.

Our health team has made a film to help the discussion:

Watch the video 

Should we social distance in the workplace?

The four countries of the UK are taking different approaches to social distancing. To find out more about these go to our advice on social distancing and hygiene 

Does the rule banning gatherings of more than six people apply to the workplace?

From 14 September it is against the law (in England) to meet people you do not live with in a group larger than 6 (unless you are meeting as a household or support bubble). However this rule does NOT apply to workplaces. Your employer is required to keep your workplace COVID-secure through social distancing, good hygiene and other measures  – How to work safely 

More details on the rule (and exemptions)

If you live or work in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales you are advised to go your own country’s advice pages to find out what you should do  – COVID advice

More information on forming a support bubble

Do I need to cover my face in public places?

Different regulations exist for wearing face coverings in different parts of the UK. advice on face-coverings

Advice may also vary according to the sector you are working in. Please ensure that you check the up to date information on your relevant our sector advice pages linked to at the top of this page.

Your employer may ask you to wear, or they may provide, a face-covering, such as a scarf, bandana or mask, to use in confined spaces, such as lifts. Please note if you are working in Scotland it is now compulsory to wear a face-covering in any indoor communal settings such as lifts, corridors, stairwells, and work canteens (other than when sat at your table

These items must not be used as a replacement for PPE.  They do not provide the protection against the risk of infection that PPE such as certified face masks do.

You can find out more on devolved government websites:

Read our guidance on PPE for more information.

How does coronavirus affect my holiday entitlement?

The government has provided guidance which applies to England, Scotland and Wales.

Northern Ireland government has also published advice.

Specific advice for NJC staff on local annual leave schemes or the new statutory government scheme

Do I have to self-isolate for 14 days on my return from a holiday abroad?

The UK government has exempted some countries from its advice against all non-essential international travel.

See the government’s advice.

This advice is kept constantly under review and can change at short notice, including when you are already on holiday.

If you travel abroad to a country that is not in the exempt list you will be required to self isolate for 14 days on your return to the UK.

How does the self-isolation period affect going to work?

The rules on which countries are affected can change suddenly, with little notice.

No-one should suffer hardship for a decision they had no control over and we are calling for employers to continue to pay affected staff where possible.

Before you travel abroad, check with your employer any arrangements in place to cover any self-isolation period when you return. These should be clear, understood and agreed by both you and your employer before you go on a holiday that may require you to self-isolate on your return.

If you need any help in finding this information contact your local branch.

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Do I need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?

This depends on what you do, where, and with who you work. You are more likely to require PPE if you are providing direct care to service users, or cleaning premises contaminated by COVID-19.

For other groups of staff other measures such as working from home, hand hygiene, social distancing and shielding those most at risk are most effective. The best protection against COVID-19 is, if possible, to remove yourself from any sources of infection. That is why we have campaigned to make employers comply with social distancing guidelines.

Sometimes, keeping two metres apart is not practical, for example, when you are looking after children in schools or caring for vulnerable adults. This will mean some form of PPE may be required. Our PPE guide provides further advice on this.

It’s important that PPE is concentrated on those who need and are trained in its use. Unnecessary and incorrectly used PPE may put yourselves, colleagues, family and friends at additional risk. The virus lives longer on plastics than ordinary clothes, so if not correctly used and disposed of items such as masks can become vessels for spreading infection.

Read more on our PPE page

If you need protective equipment (PPE) to do your job

If PPE is needed, because social distancing and other measure are insufficient, your employer has a duty to provide it so you can do your job safely.

UNISON has asked government ministers to resolve problems with the supply of equipment and to provide clearer advice about what you need to protect you at work.

There is a 24-hour employer helpline to report any shortages in health and social care providers in England.

We have a page of PPE detailed advice here

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If childcare is a problem

Do I have to go to work if my children can’t go to school or childcare is not available?

If you need to stay at home to look after your children, you are legally entitled to unpaid dependant leave.  However, many UNISON members will be entitled to paid dependant leave due to agreements negotiated with their employer.

Our advice is that you should explain your situation to your employer, and we would expect your employer to be reasonable in accommodating your circumstances.

See what your contract says or talk to your UNISON branch if you are unsure what your rights are.

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If you think you or someone you live with has coronavirus

What should I do if I think I have the symptoms of, or have had close contact with someone who has had, COVID-19?

For the latest information on symptoms, what you should do and how long you should self-isolate, see the “staying at home information” from the NHS:




Northern Ireland

If I have to self-isolate, will I be paid?

If you can’t work while you are self-isolating because of COVID-19, statutory sick pay (SSP) is now available from the first day you are off sick.  If you are self- isolating but you are not sick, you may be expected to work from home, on full pay.

Speak to your UNISON branch if you are concerned your employer is not following the guidance.

Please note that if you are required to self-isolate because you have returned to the UK from a country which does not have exemption from government restrictions on non-essential travel, the rules are different. Whether you are paid or get sick pay will depend on your contract – see here for further advice.

If you live with someone who has symptoms of coronavirus, you can get an isolation note to send to your employer as proof you need to stay off work.  You do not need to get a note from a GP.

Get an isolation note

If you are paid less than £120 a week you will be able to access Universal Credit or Contributory Employment and Support Allowance more easily.

If you’re on a zero-hours contract you are not entitled to statutory sick pay unless you can demonstrate that you earn at least £120 per week from your employer.

We’re urging the government to help those on zero-hours contracts.

If you get contractual sick pay (a rate agreed by your employer), it’s good practice to ensure that such absence is not counted towards any sickness absence policy triggers points.

This has been agreed for NHS staff and the majority of local government staff (ie those covered by national joint council (NJC) terms and conditions.) A similar agreement is in place for local authority workers in Scotland whose terms and conditions are agreed at the Scottish joint council (SJC). UNISON Scotland issued an update on this in early March.

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Find guidance on coronavirus testing, including who is eligible for a test and how to get tested here.

Testing is voluntary and your employer should not insist you request a test.

See more information for the devolved nations:

If you are over 65 and have symptoms you can also take the test.

Testing is most effective within 3 days of symptoms developing.

What should I do about track and trace?

This short and simple briefing from the TUC tells you what the issues are, what to look out for with employers introducing new testing initiatives and highlights the importance of being vigilant on privacy and data protection issues.

TUC briefing on track and trace

Can my employer make me use the NHS app?

No, as the NHS’s website says here, your employer cannot force you to download and use the NHS track and tract app.

What is UNISON’s position on the app?

Every person who downloads the NHS COVID-19 app will be helping in the fight against coronavirus (COVID-19). The app helps the NHS understand where and how quickly the virus is spreading and respond effectively.

If you are pregnant

If you are pregnant the government has issued “strong advice” that you should work from home, if possible and be particularly stringent about ‘social distancing’.

See the government’s advice for vulnerable people

Read our detailed advice for pregnant workers

What if I’m pregnant and also have a heart condition?

If you fall into this category you should have received a letter from the government about “shielding”, which is a way of protecting very vulnerable people from the virus.

Read our detailed advice on pregnant workers 

Read the full advice on protecting yourself if you’re at high risk from coronavirus on the government website.

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If you are disabled, over 70 or have an underlying health condition

Can my employer refuse home working?

On 22 September the Prime Minister announced that everyone should work from home if they are able to. This is particularly the case for disabled, pregnant and older workers and those with an underlying health condition.

Refusal of home working for a disabled person might amount to unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act.

If your current role cannot be done from home your employer should consider whether you can be temporarily re-deployed to a role that would allow home working until it’s safe to return to the workplace.

Alternatively, your employer should consider offering special paid leave and other types of adjustments if you cannot work from home.

Your employer must undertake a risk assessment (and keep you updated) to identify any additional steps they need to take to keep you safe.

If home working is not reasonable, disabled workers who are at high risk and those who are pregnant should be offered the option of the safest available on-site roles, particularly if they might normally spend time within two metres of others. Your employer should carefully assess what is an acceptable level of risk.

If your employer won’t let you work from home or allow paid leave, or has not undertaken a satisfactory risk assessment, please contact your local UNISON branch for help.

Employers must also do everything they reasonably can to allow staff over the age of 70 to work from home where possible and should consider the risks to all older workers, particularly those working in roles where social distancing is difficult to maintain.

Guidance for disabled members (PDF)

What if I am shielding and at high risk of becoming seriously ill from coronavirus?

If you are ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ you should have received a letter from the NHS with advice on “shielding” which is a way of protecting very vulnerable people from the virus.

Shielding was “paused” in all four nations of the UK in August.

However, this did not automatically mean those who had been shielding had to return to the workplace. Your employer should still consider allowing you to work from home or to take special paid leave if you have been shielding. On 22 September the UK Prime Minister announced that all non-essential workers should work from home if they were able to.

In some local lockdown areas people have been advised to resume shielding and you and your employer should follow this advice.

Updated advice on protecting clinically extremely vulnerable people, based on the local COVID alert level.

While an employer may have decided to put a shielding employee on furlough, it must not subject anyone with a protected characteristic (eg disability or pregnancy) to unlawful discrimination.

Since 1 August workers are no longer entitled to Statutory Sick Pay to help them to shield, so there may be greater pressure on returning to work.

Speak to your UNISON branch if you think your employer is not treating you fairly.

Read the full advice on protecting yourself if you’re at high risk from coronavirus on the government website.

What if I have family members who are shielding?

If you live with someone who is shielding then best practice is for your employer to allow you to work from home or to take special paid leave. Your employer must be told of your circumstances.

If you were selected for furlough, and are being told that you must now return to work, it will be important that the employer avoids making a decision which is discriminatory due to your association with someone who is disabled, pregnant or on maternity leave.

If you cannot work from home then your employer should individually risk assess you and take steps to minimise your risk in the workplace, and also consider if you travel by public transport.

If your employer is not following the guidance speak to your UNISON branch.

What happens if I receive sickness or disability-related benefits?

Face-to-face health assessments for sickness and disability benefits remain suspended but some reviews or re-assessments are gradually restarting.

Find out more on the website

This means you should continue to receive PIP (personal independence payments), ESA (employment support allowance) and industrial injuries disablement benefit without having to attend a face-to-face appointment but you may be contacted to complete a review or re-assessment form.

Government guidance on claiming benefits in light of COVID-19

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If you think you’re being discriminated against

The Equality Act gives workers with protected characteristics, including disabled, pregnant, Black, LGBT+ and women workers, certain rights, including protection from direct and indirect discrimination.  For example, employers must ensure that they do not make discriminatory decisions when selecting workers for furloughing and they must continue to provide reasonable adjustments to disabled workers working from home or being redeployed.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission have produced guidance for employers in the light of COVID-19.

If you think you are being discriminated against contact your UNISON branch.

We have been pushing the government to address the disproportionate impact of the crisis on protected groups and we have responded to the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into this issue.

Furlough, Flexible Furlough and redundancy

The UK government launched the ‘Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’ in a bid to avoid mass redundancies. The scheme is backdated to 1 March and will operate up to the end of October 2020.

Further information on furlough and the Job Retention Scheme.

UNISON’s legal guide form members on Furlough, Annual Leave, Sickness & Redundancies

Can I get help to pay my bills?

If you are on a low income you may be entitled to Universal Credit.

The government announced on 20 March that Universal Credit will be increased by £20 per week (£1,000 a year). Working Tax Credit will also be increased by £20 per week (£1,000 a year). The increase starts from 6 April.

You might also be entitled to more help with your rent. The government has announced that the Local Housing Allowance will be increased to cover more people’s rents.

Use our benefits checker to see what you’re entitled to

Our charity There for You can also offer help if you are in financial difficulty.

There for you

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How is my pension affected by COVID-19?

We’ve put together a Q&A on coronavirus and pensions.

Pensions Q&A

Further information

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Is coronavirus is affecting your mental health?

Workers in the NHS and health care can find advice on our health workers page.

The Mental Health Foundation have produced a guide to protecting your mental health during the coronavirus crisis and MIND has produced a helpful guide which will be useful to anyone who has to practice social isolation.

UNISON’s There for You charity can also provide signposting to emotional support.
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Are you experiencing ongoing symptoms of COVID-19?

Some people who have had COVID-19 (or suspect they have had it) are experiencing ‘Long Covid’ – a series of ongoing symptoms including (but not limited to) extreme fatigue, breathlessness, brain fog and/or loss of taste or smell which may come and go. Some people are still experiencing these ongoing symptoms as long as six months or more after contracting COVID-19.

While ‘Long Covid’ is not yet a formal diagnosis, it is likely that as more research is conducted it could be recognised as a long term health condition and may ultimately qualify as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.

We recommend that employers conduct individual risk assessments with any staff who are experiencing ‘Long Covid’ and to make reasonable adjustments for these staff.

Employers should follow our guidance for disabled workers and workers with an underlying health condition.