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Staff matters in the time of COVID-19 – Head, Heart and the Law

On 1 April 2020, Sierra Leone recorded its second case of COVID-19, and JobSearch management made a decision to close its office and work from home. Our training spaces were no longer being utilised, and we could just as easily work from home while saving on cost and reducing personal risk to our staff. Mabruk, HR Associate, offered to use his laptop; Essie, Office Administrator, took a desktop and we committed to increasing their mobile data allowance. Hassan, Facilities Officer, agreed to visit the office about twice a week to water the plants, open the windows, turn on the generator and check that everything is as it should be. Abubakarr, Office Assistant, also agreed to do errands as required. Both Hassan and Abubakarr have since been given masks to use in public spaces and have been assured that they can stop working if they do not feel comfortable using public transport and moving around. This week, we comfortably paid them their monthly salaries, because we have regular clients who pay monthly.....for now.

COVID-19 is a global pandemic that, to date, has resulted in at least 232,806 deaths out of more than 3,200,000 infections across 219 countries and territories. Two weeks after shutting down the office, an additional 134 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in Sierra Leone, with seven deaths. There is a lot of uncertainty regarding progression of the virus, but if global trends are anything to go by, we will have several more months of dealing with COVID-19 and its short-term repercussions. This of course depends on whether or not we heed to the only proven way of containing the virus, and that is to maintain physical distance from infected persons.

This is not always possible, so we must continue washing our hands, keeping them off our faces, stand at least 2m apart from others, cough or sneeze in our elbows or tissue and wear masks in public spaces.

Short and long-term economic repercussions of the pandemic would differ for companies; depending on the products or services they provide, this could be a period for thriving, declining or diversifying. Companies that provide essential products and services such as healthcare, food, masks, building materials (don’t ask), logistics, telecommunications, banking and water delivery will continue to generate a steady income and perform better than others. They will most likely require most or all of their staff. Some will even need to hire temporary labour and give better conditions of service to existing staff. If this is the case, employers must remember that they have a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of their staff. If staff cannot work from home and are required to travel to work, serve the public or sit in a shared space, employers should provide masks for them to wear in public spaces, space seats at least 2m apart, rotate staff, consider giving them a temporary risk allowance, make it possible for them to wash and sanitise their hands regularly and ensure that surfaces and handles are disinfected regularly.

For those not doing so well, important decisions will have to be made regarding staff retention. Choosing the right combination of head and heart for decision-making can be quite challenging when managing people. With that in mind, some options to consider are as follows:

Leave days

All employees who have accumulated leave days can use them up during this period. They will still be paid a salary, but it would buy time for longer term decisions to be made, and would not end up being wasted days or days attracting leave pay, if a decision is made to terminate.

Employers could also arrange with employees to take their leave entitlements in advance.

Unpaid leave

If employees have used all of their annual leave entitlements and are unable to take further leave with pay, they can proceed on unpaid leave for the period and resume work when the company recommences full operations.

Retain on part salary

Employees can be retained on basic salary only or part of basic salary.

Termination of employment

The hope is that this would be the last resort, but if a company does not have revenue or business continuity savings, it simply cannot afford to retain its staff. It could be a hard termination or a soft one with a view to rehiring after the pandemic.

To achieve the best results, open, honest and timely communication with staff is key. Suggestions should be made and discussed before the agreement is put in writing, as some of the options cannot be legally imposed. The employer may also need to get the union and Ministry of Labour and Social Security involved, especially with regards to unpaid leave, reduced salary and termination of employees below supervisory level. These are hard times, and we all have to get through them together by being understanding and empathetic.

Stay safe.

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