The new Government ‘Coronavirus Bill’ has introduced new Employment Laws which will support the NHS during the Coronavirus outbreak.
Emergency Volunteering Leave
The Coronavirus Act 2020, which became law on 25 March, introduces a new statutory right for workers to take emergency volunteering leave to help support essential health and social care services. The right requires secondary legislation so is not yet in force, but is likely to come into force soon so employers should prepare for requests from employees to take this leave. The right is essentially to take unpaid leave from your usual employment to volunteer in the NHS for a defined period of time. It has been reported that 400,000 have already signed up to volunteer.
If you know anyone working in the NHS or social care you will know that they are already under enormous pressure with staff who do not normally work on the “front line” being told to rest and eat well this week as they are re-trained so they are in the best possible position when called to work with patients imminently.
Who is entitled to take emergency volunteering leave?
Eligibility for leave appears to apply to employees, workers and agency workers. Individuals must be 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 in order to 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.
The right is time limited and will expire after two years or earlier if further regulations are made. However, the protections from detriment and dismissal outlined below are not time limited.
How can emergency volunteering leave be taken?
It can be taken in blocks of two, three or four weeks, and workers can only 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 in writing and produce the certificate confirming that they have been approved as an emergency volunteer for a particular period.
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. If the scheme does not cover 100% of earnings it would be up to the employer if they wished/were able to support their staff by making up the difference.
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 because they have taken emergency volunteering leave, asked to take it or because the employer thought they were likely to take it.
What does this mean for employers?
It appears that employers must release employees who request this leave and allow them to return to their roles afterwards without any negative consequences.
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