Bosses look at options if offices are closed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 April, 2003, 12:00am

Employers are grappling with the prospect of office closures, cross-infection of workers and bulk sick-leave payouts, say business chiefs and legal specialists.

With scientists working around the clock to unearth clues about the atypical pneumonia outbreak, Hong Kong's corporations and legal advisers are still uncertain about how to handle the deadly virus in the workplace.

Legal experts yesterday told of a flood of concerns from employers about the legal boundaries of ordering staff home, closing offices and paying compensation to employees.

Workplace guidelines covering the outbreak were issued by the Labour Department on Friday, detailing advice on paying sick leave to quarantined staff and other cover under the employee compensation ordinance.

'There are so many employers out there trying to grapple with their options,' said Siobhan McKeating, employment law partner at Baker McKenzie.

'But for most of them it is very much a case of what can we do, and how can we help.'

She said many companies were contemplating contingency plans in the event of an entire office block being isolated and closed.

Computer company Intel shut one of its three floors in Pacific Place in Admiralty on Sunday and more than 80 people were ordered not to turn up for work for 10 days after one employee showed symptoms consistent with the virus.

'For us it was a precautionary measure,' said an Intel spokeswoman. 'Many of our staff are able to continue to do the job whether at home or in the office.'

HSBC has also followed the guidelines, ordering about 100 workers home.

'If a member of staff is suspected of being infected, then their associated colleagues are sent home, the office area closed off and disinfected,' a spokesman said.

'Staff are ordered to stay away for 10 days.'

He said they had three confirmed cases among HSBC staff at a branch in Mongkok, its headquarters in Central, and a back office operation, also in Mongkok.

PCCW - which has one confirmed case and has told all pregnant staff to go home - is not counting virus-related absence as sick leave or annual leave, a spokesman said. Affected employees would be paid in full under a new category called special paid leave, he said.

Simmons and Simmons employment partner Fiona Loughrey said employers had a longstanding obligation to provide a safe place of work. She said she was not aware of any pending legal action in relation to the atypical pneumonia outbreak.

'If you had somebody who had the disease, and employers insisted they come into the office to finish a project, then that may constitute something actionable,' she said.

'But under the current circumstances I do not think any employer would dream of that. All employers I am aware of are acting responsibly and asking people exposed to it to stay away.'

Many companies are also reconsidering the need for corporate travel.

'Our advice is you don't force people to go if they have indicated they are feeling uneasy,' said a spokesman for the Hong Kong Law Society.

'If you force them, you may open yourself up to a claim.'