Prevention is better than cure: what role can employers play with respect to the Coronavirus outbreak?

In January 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of a new coronavirus disease to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Belgium is currently at phase 1 alert level. The consequences of this outbreak are becoming steadily more tangible for companies and for the economy in general.

In this context, employers may ask themselves what measures they can take to both prevent the possible spread of the virus in the workplace and limit the impact of the outbreak on their business.

Employers that are temporarily unable to provide work to their workforce because of the outbreak can rely on temporary unemployment due to force majeure, as recently confirmed by the National Employment Office (ONEm / RVA). Typical examples include situations where an employee is stranded abroad because of a travel ban or has been placed in quarantine. The same reasoning applies to situations where a company is impacted because its supplies from China are no longer assured.

In such case, the employment contract is temporarily suspended. No salary is due, as employees receive a specific unemployment allowance from the National Employment Office.

In the event of a decrease in an employer’s customer base as a result of the coronavirus, another option for the employer is to rely on temporary unemployment for economic reasons. This however only concerns blue-collar employees. White-collar employees can only benefit from such regime if the company already meets the conditions to introduce temporary unemployment for economic reasons.

Other preventive measures that employers can take in light of the coronavirus outbreak include the provision of clear guidelines to their workforce on the behaviour to adopt if they have symptoms or doubts on their health status (contact their physician or the company doctor, and stay home), as well as the use of telework. It is also advisable for employers to monitor advice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as to where it is unsafe to travel, and to avoid sending employees on business trips in such regions.