Overview of the effects of recommendations and restrictions for preventing the spread of the coronavirus at workplaces and division of the costs caused by this unusual situation.
Situational face mask and remote work recommendations are in effect in Finland. The government has given travel restrictions, leading to an increase in number of quarantines ordered by infectious disease physicians as well as quarantines on recommendation bases. Recommendations for teaching and early childhood education and care are increasing young children’s parents’ absent days at work since all symptomatic children must remain at home.
All operators are affected by the recommendations and travel restrictions and hence, all employers should constantly review their own practices as well as safety measures. During these unusual times employment legislation related issues may raise questions that have never been raised before.
The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health has issued guidance for the employers on risk assessment and safety at the workplace, however, often there is a need for case-by-case evaluation and job-specific solutions.
Occupational safety and coronavirus – What can the employer do?
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Act the employer is required to take necessary measures to ensure the safety and health of its employees while at work. This obligation also applies to the threat to the health of workers posed by the coronavirus.
At many workplaces, employees have continued to work remotely if possible even after the remote work recommendation ended temporarily in the beginning of August, and the renewed recommendation did not change the policies that have been followed for several months. However, the duty of the employer to take care of the safety and health of its employees while at work is emphasized when remote work is not possible.
The employer can increase safety at the workplace by clear instructions and by organizing work and facilities, when possible, in a way that safety distance between individuals can be maintained at all times, not only during work, but also during lunch and coffee breaks. In addition, hand sanitizer and face masks may be offered to the employees at the workplace. The limits of the work arrangements and whether the employer may require the use of a face mask raise questions.
Due the employer’s right to supervise work, the employer may define the place and manner of doing the work as long as the order is in line with the employment contract and legislation. However, the employer cannot dictate how the employee uses his/her daily time of rest, such as lunch break.
The employer has the right to require the employees to wear face masks at the workplace if the use of the mask is considered necessary to ensure safety of the employees or customers. If, despite the employer's orders, an employee does not agree to wear a mask, it is possible to use normal sanctions as regulated in employment legislation.
When the use of mask is based on the employer's decision, the employer must provide face masks for the employees. The Finnish Tax Administration has stated that the employers can provide their employees face masks tax-free, as the mask is a protective tool on preventing the spread of a common dangerous infectious disease. Whether the employee wears an employer-acquired face mask at work or while commuting is not relevant in terms of taxation.
However, the employer may not require the employee to wear a mask outside the working hours, for example while commuting. Furthermore, the employer is generally not obliged to acquire the masks worn by employees while commuting, although dissenting opinions on the subject have been raised.
Risk assessment must therefore be carried out with the provisions and recommendations in mind.
Who pays for the absences caused by the coronavirus situation?
In addition to the work arrangements and face masks at work, employees’ trips abroad raise questions.
A person returning from a risk country can be ordered to be quarantined for 14 days by infectious disease physician, which in many cases means that returning to work after a holiday is prevented for two weeks. The Social Insurance Institution of Finland (Kela), may pay the employer an infectious disease allowance corresponding to the employee’s salary for the period of absence. However, during the period of the quarantine the annual holiday accrual is normal.
If the employee’s quarantine is based on employee’s own decision infectious disease allowance will not be paid and the employer is not obliged to pay any salary. Furthermore, if the quarantine is based on the employer’s order, the employer is not entitled to infectious disease allowance but the quarantine does not affect the employer’s obligation to pay salary.
According to the Ministry of Education and Culture’s and the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare’s recommendations, a child with even mild respiratory symptoms cannot take part in early childhood education. Therefore, the parents are increasingly forced to stay at home to care for their young children. According to the Employment Contracts Act the employee has a right for temporary child-care leave for up to four days if the employee’s child falls ill. During temporary child-care leave the employer is not obliged to pay salary unless applicable collective agreement or the employment contract states otherwise.
It is recommendable to draw clear guidelines concerning different absences, although case-by-case evaluation is generally needed as well.
The situation and recommendations concerning the coronavirus change almost daily, which requires constant attention and adaptation from the employer. Clear guidelines and practices will get you far, and you do not have to be alone with any issues that come up. We are more than happy to assist employers in finding suitable arrangements and assess individual cases.