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COVID-19: managing the risk of contamination in the workplace
13/03/2020

While the World Health Organisation has just declared the COVID-19 epidemic a “pandemic”, with the virus having reached nearly 130,000 people since December 2019, managing the risk of the virus spreading in the workplace has become a major issue for every employer. Following the announcement of multiple cases in Luxembourg and the decision of one Luxembourg bank to require employees to take holiday leave in the event of contamination, it seems more important than ever to remind ourselves of the rights and obligations of employers in the current scenario.

What are the employers’ obligations?

According to the Luxembourg Labour Code, employers have a legal obligation to ensure the safety and health of their employees in all work-related aspects. More particularly, as part of their responsibilities, employers shall take all necessary measures for the protection of the safety and health of employees, including actions for prevention of occupational hazards, information and training, as well as the establishment of the necessary organisational means. In general, employers must avoid risks and take precautions against possible risk factors, plan risk prevention and eliminate hazards or, at least, reduce them as much as possible.
In concrete terms, employers must take all the necessary preventive measures to protect employees and prevent the spread of the virus, such as: 

  • display pictograms in the premises explaining basic hygiene procedures (e.g. regular hand washing, avoiding physical contact, avoiding travel in high-risk areas, sneeze or cough into a tissue );
  • reinforce hygiene measures (provision of masks, soaps and alcohol-based solutions for hand disinfection, etc.);
  • encourage teleworking where possible;
  • limit employees’ business travel and use alternatives solutions such as video-conference, phone calls, etc.;
  • postpone organized social events;
  • inform employees about the evolution of the situation in Luxembourg;
  • etc.

The means put in place by the employer should thus be aimed at (i) researching the virus’ origins and (ii) containing and delaying its spread.
In any case, employers shall keep themselves informed of the official recommendations published by the Ministry of Health, and liaise with their occupational health service in case of doubt.

Can an employee refuse to work or to carry out an assignment for safety reasons?

The Labour Code provides that in the event of a serious, immediate and unavoidable danger, an employee can choose to leave or refuse to go to his/her workplace. There is no specific procedure to follow: it is sufficient for the employee to inform his/her employer orally or, preferably, in writing. In such event, the employee shall not suffer any harm/be subject to any sanction. A dismissal  in violation of this prohibition of sanctions, would be automatically deemed abusive.
If the employer has not taken the necessary steps to isolate employees exposed to the virus, an employee may therefore exercise his/her withdrawal right, either because he/she has been in a risk area or because he/she has been in contact with a colleague who has been in a risk area. Similarly, if the employer does not offer repatriation to an employee working in a risk area, the employee can again exercise his/her right to withdraw by ending the assignment. This right may also be exercised by an employee in the event that his/her employer asks him/her to go to a risk zone for an assignment.
As mentioned above, the employee’s withdrawal right can only be exercised in the event of a serious, immediate and unavoidable danger. Consequently, an employee cannot refuse to attend work simply for fear of the COVID-19; similarly, an employee cannot refuse a business trip to an area that is not considered to be at risk. In such circumstances, the employee’s refusal could be subject to disciplinary action up to, and including, dismissal.

Can the employer refuse to approve vacation for an employee who intends to privately go to areas at risk of COVID-19?

Under Luxembourg law, the employer may only refuse to grant leave in limited cases:

  • for operational purposes;
  • because of the justified wishes of other employees;
  • because of the employee’s unjustified absences, when they exceed 10% of the time during which he/she would normally have been required to work.
  • Luxembourg law does not allow the employer to deny leave to an employee for health and safety reasons. In any case, the employer cannot interfere in the private life of its employees.

In accordance with its obligation to ensure safety and health in all work-related aspects, the employer may, at most, recommend to the employee not to travel to the specific place. If the employee nevertheless travels to a high-risk area, the employee may be refused access to the workplace if the health and safety of others employees are seriously at risk, and in order to avoid spreading the virus in the company.

Does the employee have an obligation to inform the employer of possible exposure to the virus?

The Labour Code provides that it is the responsibility of each employee to take care, according to his/her possibilities, of his/her own safety and health and that of other persons affected by his/her acts or omissions at work, in accordance with his/her training and the instructions of the employer. In particular, employees must immediately report to the employer and/or the designated employees and the safety and health representatives, any work situation which they have reasonable cause to believe presents a serious and immediate danger to safety and health, as well as any deficiencies found in the protection system.
In light of the above, and on the basis of the principles of good faith and loyalty inherent in all employment relationships, employees should therefore inform their employer of any possible exposure to the virus (e.g. travel to an affected area, contact with a person returning from an affected region, etc.) so that the employer can take all the necessary measures in accordance with its obligation to ensure safety and health at work.

What can the employer do in case that an employee is showing symptoms or is coming back from a high risk area?

First of all, as the employer is responsible for ensuring safety and health in the workplace, and pursuant to the Labour Code, the employer may request employees showing symptoms or coming back from a high risk area to perform a medical examination in order to ensure that the employee is fit for work. Such medical examination should be carried out by an occupational doctor of the company and at the employer’s expense, and may only be requested if the employer has serious indications of the existence of a risk for safety and health at work.
Where the health and safety of other employees is at stake, the employer may also refuse an employee access to the workplace. However, the risk justifying the refusal of access to the workplace must be serious and justified; otherwise the refusal of the employer could be regarded as discrimination.
Finally, the employer may encourage the implementation of telework for employees whose nature of work allows it, in order to avoid any risk of infection or spread of the virus.
According to the Ministry of Economy, employers could even impose telework in a preventive manner. The employer and the employee would then have to enter into an amendment to the employment contract, allowing the use of telework for reasons objectively motivated by precautionary measures in the context of the fight against COVID-19.
In any case, the employer shall cover the costs directly linked to telework, especially costs in relation with telecommunication. The employer shall also provide their teleworkers with appropriate technical support and is responsible for any cost related to the damage or loss of equipment and data used by the teleworker.
Where the nature of the employee’s job does not allow telework, the employer may exempt the employee from work where there is a risk for health and safety in the workplace.
In any case, the employer shall continue to pay its employees’ salaries. In addition, the employer may, under no circumstances, require the employee to stay at home by taking days off.

How to deal with a sick employee or with an employee stuck abroad due to restriction measures?

In case of sickness or quarantine instructed by a doctor, the employee will receive a medical certificate and the absence will be treated as normal sickness absence (i.e. cost is either borne by the employer or social security depending on whether the 77-day threshold has been reached).
However, if an employee is absent and stuck abroad due to restriction measures implemented in connection with the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 (e.g. quarantine on a cruise ship, cancellation of flights, etc.), and if the employee is not sick, this absence will not be treated as normal sickness absence.
In such situation, the employer and the employee may agree that the employee will work remotely, if practically possible. In this case, the employer must continue to pay the salary of the employee.
In any case, absences due to cases of “force majeure” or causes beyond the employee’s control, which have made it impossible for the employee to request prior authorisation, shall not be considered as unjustified absences and shall be assimilated to actual working days. In this respect, the employer shall continue to pay the employee’s salary.
However, if an employee is stuck abroad following his decision to go to a high-risk area despite his employer’s warnings, it could then be considered that there is an impossible performance of the employment contract due to the employee’s gross negligence, and that in this case the employer could be justified in not paying the employee’s salary.

Should the employer grant an employee’s request to telework in order to care for children who are temporarily not allowed to attend their school?

An employer has no legal obligation to accept a telework request. Should the child of an employee be infected with COVID-19, placed in quarantine or temporarily unable to attend school, the employee will have to apply for leave.

However, where the child of an employee has potentially been in contact with a person who may be infected with the virus or who has stayed in a risk area, it is in the employer’s interest to permit teleworking as a preventive measure.
A draft Grand-Ducal regulation has recently been adopted, providing for the possibility of a right to family leave for parents whose children have been placed in quarantine by the doctor of the Health Directorate, in particular in order to limit the spread of infectious diseases and more specifically of the COVID-19.

How can redundancies be avoided in the event of a decline in the activity of the business due to the propagation of the COVID-19?

In order to protect jobs and prevent redundancies, the Labour Code allows businesses, under certain conditions, to resort to various short-time working schemes depending on the nature of the difficulties encountered.
In this respect, the Labour Code provides that in the event of partial or total interruption of the operation of the undertaking due to losses of a “force majeure” nature occurring independently of the will of the employer and the employees, a subsidy may be granted to the employer who, instead of proceeding to dismissals, undertakes to maintain the employment contracts of its employees and to pay them a compensatory wage allowance.
In the event of an agreement, the Employment Fund (Fonds pour l’emploi) covers 80 % of the salaries normally received by the employees (which is capped at 250 % of the minimum wage for an unskilled worker) during the non-work periods with a maximum of 1.022 hours per employee and per year.
The Luxembourg authorities have recently recognized that this short-time working scheme in cases of “force majeure” may apply in principle to all economic sectors as long as the causes invoked are directly related to COVID-19 (e.g. drop in demand from customers or users, employees absences due to external decisions, company can no  longer operate at normal speed, etc.).
 

Related : Bonn Steichen & Partners ( Mrs. Anne Morel )

[+ http://www.bsp.lu]

Mrs. Anne Morel Mrs. Anne Morel
Partner
amorel@bsp.lu

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