Weathering the Storm: Steps an Employer Can Take to Mitigate the Effects of the COVID-19

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The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented instability in the employment sector with employers currently faced with the difficult balancing act of ensuring business continuity and sustainability while at the same time ensuring the safety and well-being of employees.

Many businesses are undergoing massive financial challenges during this period and are being forced to take drastic measures such as termination of employment by declaring redundancies, in a bid to remain afloat. Declaring redundancy is a drastic and last-line measure, and an employer should consider other measures which might serve to keep the business in operation and keep the staff component intact, before resorting to declaring redundancies. Whichever measure one takes, employers are encouraged to abide by the present legal frameworks governing the employment regime in Kenya which are heavily weighted towards the protection of fair labour practices in accordance with Article 41 of the Constitution.

Below is a discussion on the measures an employer can put in place to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic:

a) Annual leave

Section 28 of the Employment Act, 2007 (the Act) provides for paid annual leave for not less than twenty-one (21) working days for every twelve (12) consecutive months of service.

The question that arises is whether an employer can compel an employee to go on annual leave during this period especially for employees who cannot work remotely. This can be effected with the consent of the employee.

b) Unpaid leave

An employment relationship is governed by the general principles of contract law as much as it is regulated by the Constitution and statute. There are no statutory or constitutional provisions on unpaid leave. It is, however, possible to have such provisions included in contracts of employment and/or an employer’s internal policies.

Section 10(5) of the Act requires consultation with the employee before any change or amendment of the terms of employment. These changes must thereafter be captured in writing and the employee notified of the same. Where the contract of employment and/or employer’s internal policies do not provide for unpaid leave, an employer may send an employee on unpaid leave upon consultation with the employee and the employee consenting to the same. This must be made expressly in writing.

c) Sick leave

Section 30 of the Act provides for sick leave of not less than seven (7) days with full pay and thereafter seven (7) days with half pay. The Regulation of Wages (General) Order provides that an employee is entitled to a maximum of thirty (30) days sick leave with full pay and thereafter to a maximum of fifteen (15) days sick leave with half pay in each period on twelve (12) months consecutive service.

The courts have held that employers should apply the provisions in the Order since they are more advantageous to employees than those in the Act.

If employees fall sick during this period, they are entitled to sick leave in line with the foregoing provisions or any internal policies the employer might have and that may have more advantageous terms on sick leave.

d) Reduction in working hours

As a mechanism to deal with lower demand in production during this period, an employer may consider a reduction in working hours for employees. This will require employees to only work for specified shorter periods with duties spread out across the workforce as a sustainability measure. Like any other alteration to the employment contract, the same should be done in consultation with and written consent by the employee.

Furthermore, on 25th March 2020, the President through a presidential address on state interventions to cushion Kenyans against economic effects of COVID-19 issued a directive on the coming into force of a daily curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. from 27th March 2020. The directive exempted those offering specified essential services, and the same was formally gazetted through Legal Notice No. 36 issued under the Public Order Act (Cap 56).

Following skirmishes which broke out between law enforcement officers and members of the public on the first few days of the curfew, it was further directed that employers should release their employees from work earlier than usual, so that those who use public transport are able to beat rush-hour traffic and get home in good time.

Therefore, employers might be forced to adjust the working hours and have more flexible working arrangements for their employees who do not offer essential services to ensure that they are in a position to adhere to the curfew.

Any measures to facilitate the above must be in consultation with the employee.

e) Reduction in remuneration

Across both the public and private sector various organisations are using pay-cuts as an alternative to declaring redundancies. Some of the pay-cuts are voluntary and others have been proposals at various rates through certain levels or grades of employment. As with any other change in the terms of employment, a reduction in remuneration can only be done upon consultation with an employee and obtaining his or her consent on the same. Again, this must be done in writing.

If parties consult and agree to salary cuts or unpaid leave, the employee will not be able to recover such underpaid on unpaid salaries when normal business operations resume, unless it is a specific term in the agreement.

f) Working from home

Employers can have their employees working from home or working remotely if it is possible, except where those employees are working in critical and essential services. Employees who cannot work remotely can take annual leave during this period. However, the consent of the employees should be sought.

g) Working in shifts

Employers can employ a shift system to reduce the number of employees who are in the workplace at any given time. With a reduced number of staff present in the office during any given shift, this will also go towards ensuring compliance with the directives on social distancing in the workplace.

h) Redundancies

Some employers may be forced to declare some employees redundant if circumstances become unsustainably dire. In such eventuality, employers will be required to strictly adhere to the provisions of redundancy under the Act, which include issuing a mandatory notice of intention to terminate employment on account of redundancy and consultation with the employees before ultimately terminating employment. Both these mandatory processes take no less than one (1) month and in certain cases may take up to three (3) months based on terms of employment and Collective Bargaining Agreement (if any). More importantly, under the Act, it is clear that employees have to be paid all dues owing to them before the redundancy can be deemed to have taken effect, thus serious financial consideration must be taken before taking this route. This might prove difficult to employers due to the prevailing financial times.

i) Insolvency

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected business operations across the world resulting in cases where an employer is unable to meet its financial obligations to its employees and therefore gets into an insolvency situation. The options available in such circumstances are provided for in the Act and the Insolvency Act No. 18 of 2015 (the Insolvency Act).

The Act provides under sections 43 and 45 that for termination of an employment relationship to be fair and lawful the employer must prove that the reasons for the same are fair and valid. The current slumped business environment would constitute valid and fair reasons for termination of an employment relationship if the employer is able to show that it is unable to meet its financial obligations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Section 66 of the Act provides that where an employee or his representative makes an application to the Minister in writing and the Minister is satisfied among other reasons that the employer is insolvent, then the Minister shall, subject to the provisions of section 69 of the Act, pay the employee out of the National Social Security Fund the amount which in the opinion of the Minister the employee is entitled to in respect to the debt.

Section 68 of the Act then sets out the debts which apply when an employer is insolvent, and these include:

  1. Any arrears of wages in respect of one (1) or more months, but not more than six (6) months or part thereof
  2. An amount equivalent to the period of notice that the employer would be required to give to the employee in case of termination in accordance to the Act
  3. Any pay in lieu of annual leave days earned by the employee but not taken

Section 69 of the Act to which section 66 is subject to limits the total amount payable to an employee in respect of any debt in case of insolvency to KES. 10,000 or one half of the monthly remuneration whichever is greater in respect of any one month payable.

The Insolvency Act caters to payment of wages by the employer in an insolvency situation. The Second Schedule of the Insolvency Act sets out the order of priority of debts where the secured creditors get first priority and dues payable to employees are second priority claims as set out at paragraph 2 thereof “all wages or salaries payable to employees in respect of services provided to the bankrupt or company during the four months before the commencement of the bankruptcy or liquidation” to the extent that they remain unpaid.

Paragraph 3 (2) of the Second Schedule to the Insolvency Act then limits the amount payable to any one employee to not more than KES 200,000 as at the commencement of the bankruptcy or liquidation, as the case may be.

Therefore, employees claiming unpaid benefits will be ranked as second priority claims if the claim is merited and accrues before or because of the commencement of the insolvency proceedings and any payments made to the employees by the employer are limited to four (4) months before the commencement of the insolvency proceedings and further limited to not more than KES 200,000 in relation to an amount payable to any one (1) employee.

j) Compliance with directives by Government

On 14th March 2020, the Ministry of Labour through the Directorate of Occupational Safety and Health Services issued an advisory following the COVID-19 outbreak. The directive states that employers should formulate policies on infection control plans that should guide the organization. The directive outlines that such a policy should include:

  • Steps that the organization will take in the promotion and practice of hygiene
  • Modalities of holding meetings and travel control mechanisms both business travel and commute to and from work for the employees
  • Safe food handling in the workplace
  • Possible mechanisms of working from home
  • Channels of reporting any suspected COVID-19 cases

From the above, it is clear that more obligations are placed on employers in the health sector as they are expected to provide their employees with effective personal protective equipment, the maintenance of the protective gear and training of the employees. However, it is key that every employer takes the necessary step of coming up with a relevant policy as outlined above and they may consult the Directorate of Occupational, Safety and Health Services on the same.

The Ministry of Health has been at the forefront in issuing directives that apply to all citizens within the country. The directives are not specifically directed to employers or employees however they are complementary of the directives issued by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection. Therefore, employers have an obligation to ensure that they are up to date with the directives and the same is implemented in the workplace.

Working together during the storm

Employers are encouraged to work towards remaining in operation during these uncertain times, to the extent possible. This may be achieved through co-operation with government guidelines aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 and in consultation and consent with employees on workable amendments to the terms and conditions of employment. Together, the storm can be weathered.

 

This alert is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as or construed to be legal advice. If you have any queries or need clarifications, please do not hesitate to contact Chacha Odera, Managing Partner, Georgina Ogalo-Omondi, Partner, Sandra Kavagi, Associate, Anne Kadima, Associate, Rosemary Sossion, Associate, or your usual contact at our firm for legal advice relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and how the same might affect you.