What risk mitigation efforts should the prudent employer take before employees return to the workplace?
Employers have a duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of their employees in order to ensure a safe workplace. Due to the requirements of occupational safety and infection protection, an employer must ensure the following in the current Covid-19 crisis:
- Establish a hygiene regime taking into account the nature of the business and the individual workplaces to ensure a safe workplace (e.g. minimizing contact between the employees, guarantee a high hygiene standard, offer the use of masks)
- Provide information, training and supervision to the employees to ensure the health and safety at work (e.g. instructions to maintain a distance of at least 1.5 meters, prohibiting coming to work sick; communication of hand washing rules)
Carry out a risk assessment. The risk assessment should identify the risk, decide how likely it is that someone will be harmed and require action to be taken to eliminate the hazard, or, if that is not possible, control the risk (e.g. sending home employees who feel sick). The risk assessment should also be carried out with the assistance of a company doctor who advises the employer on the preparation, the implementation and the ongoing improvement process to ensure that the risk assessment is conducted in line with the occupational health and safety standards. However there is no legal obligation to obtain the company doctor’s consent to the actions to be taken.
- The website of the German Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs provides guidance regarding occupational safety in the time of COVID-19 and can be reviewed to keep up with the medical and governmental guidance (information available in various languages).
Who should be involved in the decisions to return to the workplace?
One of the key aspects in determining the risk is to ensure that you have the correct team in place to review the proposals for implementing the return to the workplace. HR, Legal, IT and business leaders should all be involved. The level of steps required will depend on the nature of the business. Where a works council is established, these employee representatives must be involved for certain topics, e.g. when implementing information and prevention measures, for matters related to occupational health and safety protection and for matters regarding the company code of conduct. You should also consult occupational safety specialists and medical officers to ensure compliance with the infection control measures.
- Works councils should be consulted as soon as possible when implementing new measures in order to maintain an open dialogue on any concerns and ensure that its co-determination rights are respected.
What can the prudent employer do to ensure physical distancing in terms of the work space?
The German Government guidance is that at least 1.5 metre social distancing should be maintained, where possible, between employees, customers and visitors. Where this is not possible, other safety measures need to be taken, e.g. installing transparent protective walls or wearing a face mask. Office work should, where possible continue to be carried out from home. Access of external individuals should be reduced to a minimum. If possible, their details as well as their entry and leave time should be documented.
It will also be important to check what sub tenants/contractors/outsourced services are doing and make sure that it protects employees.
Where employees violate the rules for social distancing, an employer should send the employee home immediately and consider disciplinary measures, in particular a written warning.
- Reach out to your employees a couple of days before re-opening the office, e.g. via email, before they return to the office to familiarize them with the social distancing terms.
- Place information boards with the social distancing rules or floor markings around the office to ensure that the employees comply with them.
- A manager or someone from the executive team should be designated as a contact person in case any questions arise.
What can the prudent employer do to ensure physical distancing in temporal terms?
In order to ensure social distancing, an employer should consider changes in the working hours and shifts (e.g. by implementing staggered starting times, new shift requirements, splitting the workforce into teams etc.). It is advisable to have guidelines for the use of meeting and conference rooms as well as for coffee and communication areas in place and also to define rules for visitors.
This may lead to various employment issues – including changes to employment terms (different shifts or working time) and obligation of a continued pay during times off. Also co-determination rights of the works council have to be considered before taking any measures, e.g. when changing the end and beginning of the daily working hours or breaks and implementing new codes of conduct for the use of common areas in the company.
What protections should the prudent employer consider implementing, in addition to physical distancing?
Employers need to consider additional cleaning requirements, providing personal protection equipment (e.g. face masks, gloves) and screens. In addition, employers should also consider checking ventilation systems and air conditioning systems.
Where possible, work equipment should only be used by one employee and cleaned regularly. Otherwise, employees must be provided with suitable protective gloves. Company cars need to be equipped with utensils for hand hygiene, disinfectant, paper tissues and garbage bags.
In order to reduce business trips and personal meetings, employers should provide their employees with the necessary technical equipment (e.g. mobile phones, laptops).
How can an employer screen its employees, including temperature testing, COVID-19 testing and questioning?
If considering carry out any health screening on employees there are various issues that need to be considered:
- Employee’s medical information is a special category of data under the GDPR and there are therefore strict conditions that apply as to when the data can be collected and processed.
- From a data protection law perspective, we recommend not conducting temperature screenings on employees unless specific reasons exceptionally require such a measure. The German data protection authorities are of the opinion that temperature screening is not necessary as a high temperature does not necessarily indicate infection by Covid-19. If the employees’ presence at the workplace is required, German data protection authorities recommend requesting the employee to consult a doctor if there are indications that he or she is experiencing symptoms of Covid-19.
- According to a guidance issued by the Hamburg State Data Protection Commissioner (der Hamburgische Beauftragte für Datenschutz und Informationsfreiheit) temperature screening may be allowed in specific circumstances requiring such measure, e.g. in working environments with particularly close contact or in institutions that are essential for the acute care of the population, such as hospitals or medical device manufacturers as an exception due to the current situation. Screening employees might further be considered where other employees on a site have been tested positive for Covid-19. In these exceptional circumstances, however, the employer is only allowed to record and retain the fact that the employee has been asked to refrain from working in the office for a certain time period as a result of the initial check; the employer may not retain the results of the check itself. In other words, the storage of specific information such as symptoms of illness or body temperature is not permitted. Employees can be asked to voluntarily conduct a temperature screening by themselves i.e. without showing or disclosing the result of the screening to the employer or the employer’s staff.
Before implementing any testing, co-determination rights of employee representatives have to be observed as all health protection measures and orderly conduct in the company are subject to co-determination in Germany.
- Consult with employees on their views regarding medical screenings in the office to maintain an open dialogue.
- Keep up to date with government guidance on medical testing.
- Get the works council involved at an early stage to discuss concerns and to prepare employees before they return to work.
What are the requirements regarding travel – either to or from the office or business travel?
An employer must assess the risk to the safety and health of the employees and take measures based on this assessment as well as identify and take additional measures where necessary.
An employer should encourage the employees to continue to work from home. If this is not possible due to the nature of the business, an employer should urge the employees to observe recommendations regarding safety and hygiene, such as:
- Avoiding public transport (employers might need to expand parking areas, free parking tickets etc.)
- Avoiding peak hours (employers might need to move shifts)
- Keeping the minimal physical distance (1.5 metres) and wearing face masks and gloves while using public transport.
- Limiting the number of contacts when traveling and keeping track of the people met (e.g. customers, clients, suppliers), to be able to trace contacts to (potential) Covid-19 cases.
- Trying to avoid busy areas.
An employer should reduce business travel of the employees to a minimum and advise employees to conduct virtual meetings where possible.
- Discuss with employees if they have concerns travelling for business purposes.
- Keep up to date with government travel restrictions.
How does the prudent employer decide which employees should return to the workplace?
Employers will need to ensure that they do not adopt discriminatory selection criteria in determining who should return to work.
Among a group of “equal” employees in terms of gender, age and health, an employer should select individuals proportionally and appropriately to consider who should return to work (e.g. considering the duration of the commute to work, childcare obligations etc.).
- Discuss with employees their concerns about returning to the workplace.
- Consult with medical officers on concerns about certain employee groups returning to work.
What if an employee refuses to return to the workplace?
Employees are obliged by their contractual obligation to perform work at their place of work (unless otherwise contractually agreed) and therefore they have to return to their workplace, if the employer requires them to. Otherwise, the employee breaches his/her contractual obligations.
Also, the employee's entitlement to continued payment of remuneration ceases to apply if the employee is absent from work despite their ability to work.
Only in exceptional cases, namely if no adequate protective measures are in place and it is therefore unreasonable for the employee to appear at work because of the risk to his health, can the employee refuse to return to work.
- If employees refuse to return to the office it may be helpful to discuss their concerns with them and, also a member of the works council, to resolve any issues they have.
What other considerations should the prudent employer is thinking about at this time?
A number of employers in Germany are using the Covid-19 crisis to conduct a survey about working from home to learn about the employee’s preferences. The outcome of such survey also helps employers to establish and adapt a reasonable return to work concept.