Protect vulnerable workers or risk prosecution, operators warned
Operators allowing or pressuring vulnerable employees to work during the COVID-19 pandemic could face HSE prosecution, a leading law firm warned this week, writes Carol Millett.
The warning was made during a webinar on the impact of new government emergency measures to tackle the pandemic on operators’ businesses.
The webinar, organised by law firm Backhouse Jones, which specialises in transport law, tackled questions from operators on how to navigate the new rules around the temporary relaxation of drivers hours, furloughing employees, applying for government loans during the pandemic and vehicle finance holidays.
Answering an enquiry on vulnerable employees, director Jonathan Backhouse said: “There is a major health and safety implication here. If an employer forces an employee who is considered vulnerable to come into work and that employee becomes seriously ill or even dies as a result of the contact that may have occurred at work, then the HSE will in all probability investigate why the employer insisted on them coming in - I accept it can be detrimental for the company and what employers should do is look at the government Time to Pay scheme, loan schemes and extended and deferred payments schemes to mitigate the impact.”
The team also tackled questions on repayment holidays on vehicle lease schemes.Backhouse said that operators wanting a payment holiday should approach their finance companies as soon as possible.
He added: “This is a commercial issue between operators and their finance companies - it is not a government issue.
“I do know a few companies have been obtaining repayment holidays and that finance companies are set up now to deal with these queries – operators should get on with speaking to them if they want a repayment holiday to see what can be agreed.
“I think finance companies know of the contractual issues out there and will try and be reasonable rather than find themselves in a frustration of contract argument which the finance house may lose ultimately.”
Backhouse also referred to the government’s furlough scheme in which the government will fund 80% of employees’ salaries if they are laid off during the pandemic. But he warned that operators can only use this scheme if employees are laid off and there is no work for them.
“A furloughed employee cannot be working for their employer or anyone else during the period they are furloughed – it is not a way of paying employees who are working - it is a way of paying workers who can’t work but that you don’t want to get rid of because once the pandemic is over you want to get them back,” he said.
The webinar can be accessed on Backhouse Jones’ website: https://www.backhousejones.co.uk/
From the Frontline: Trailer manufacturer Don-Bur hibernates and furloughs workforce
Trailer manufacturer Don-Bur has put the business on ice for the next three weeks and furloughed the majority of its workforce, writes Carol Millett.
To move aims to ensure staff and customer safety during the COVID-19 pandemic and comes in the light of 5.4% of the company’s 500-strong staff having gone into precautionary self-isolation.
In a statement the manufacturer, based in Stoke-on-Trent, said it is hoping to re-open on 14 April. It added: “This means that the main manufacturing plant and service depots are now closed and the majority of the workforce is now furloughed.
"A support team are still working from home and some staff are available for service support to ensure critical business continuity.”
Speaking to Commercial Motor, Richard Owens, Don-Bur group marketing manager, said: “The nature of our business means that we are highly dependent on people working in close proximity. We have 30 staff already in precautionary self-isolation, so we decided it just wasn’t fair on the workforce and that going into hibernation for a few weeks was the best solution.”
Owens said the majority of the workforce will be furloughed. However he expressed concern about the lack of details available on the government’s furlough scheme.
Announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak last week, the scheme will see 80% of the wages of employees that are laid off funded by the government.
The aim of the scheme is to avoid mass redundancies during the pandemic.
“It is hard to get clear information on the scheme. No one seems to know the details. We called HMRC to ask if the furlough payments are pre or post PAYE and National Insurance payments and they had no idea,” he said.
Don-Bur has informed all clients of its decision to temporarily close.
Owens said: “The vast majority were extremely understanding. We are not alone in this. The industry has overwhelmingly gone into hibernation. The phones are dead. Retail is on the ropes and some customers are preferring to postpone their orders. So what we are doing makes sense.”