March 25, 2020

COVID-19 UK: Employment update for emergency volunteering leave

The Coronavirus Bill, published on 19 March 2020, introduces a new statutory right for workers to take emergency volunteering leave to help support essential health and social care services - but it isn't yet known when this legislation will come into force.

Who is entitled to take emergency volunteering leave?

Workers who have been certified by an appropriate authority (a local authority, the NHS Commissioning Board or the Department of Health) to act as an emergency volunteer in health or social care can take emergency volunteering leave.

Except for businesses with fewer than ten staff, there is no provision for employers to refuse leave, for example because of operational need.

How can emergency volunteering leave be taken?

It can be taken in blocks of two, three or four weeks, and workers can take one period of leave in each "volunteering period". Initially there will be one 16-week volunteering period (beginning on the day the legislation comes into force). Subsequent volunteering periods may be set.

To take the leave, workers must give their employer three working days' notice and produce the certificate confirming that they have been approved as an emergency volunteer.

Are emergency volunteers entitled to paid leave?

No, the right will be to statutory unpaid leave, but a UK-wide compensation fund will be established to compensate these volunteers for loss of earnings (if they suffer loss of earnings due to volunteering), travel and subsistence. It isn't clear yet whether the compensation offered by the government will replace volunteers' full pay or whether it will be subject to a cap.

What employment rights and benefits will volunteers have?

During emergency volunteering leave, workers remain entitled to the benefit of all of their terms and conditions of employment which would have applied if they had not been absent - except for terms and conditions relating to remuneration. The period of absence will be deemed not to have any effect on their pension or benefit entitlements.

These volunteers will have a statutory right to return to the job they were employed in before taking this leave, on terms and conditions no less favourable than those which would have applied if they hadn't been absent. So volunteers will be in a similar position to employees on maternity, and other family leave.

In addition, volunteers will have the right not to be subjected to a detriment or dismissal on the grounds of taking emergency volunteering leave.

What does this mean for employers?

Aside from the issue for employers of the potential impact of the volunteers' absence on the business, some employers may consider whether to offer to top-up an individual's pay if the compensation offered by the government is subject to a cap. However, we will need to wait for further information about the compensation scheme to see whether workers will be able to claim full loss of earnings from the government.

For any questions please contact your usual advisor at Clyde & Co.

Useful links below:-

Coronavirus: Furloughing and support for employee pay

Coronavirus: Key workers

Employment UK and COVID-19: Update for UK employers during Coronavirus

Employment UK and COVID-19: Top 5 recent workplace developments