With COVID-19 hitting businesses hard, what options do employers have apart from cutting jobs?

While job-cutting may be effective in some cases, it can also severely damage company culture and staff morale and result in irreparable loss of know-how. Employers can instead consider these alternatives:

  1. Working arrangement adjustments – these help to manage costs and human resources. They include placing employees on part-time or flexible work schedules, job-sharing arrangements, and shorter work weeks, accompanied by proportionate salary reductions.
  2. Wage adjustments – these may be introduced with working arrangement adjustments or other changes in the scope of employment duties. Start with freezing or reducing increments, variable bonuses and wage supplements, before adjusting the monthly variable component and other allowances, and lastly, no-pay leave.
  3. Manpower reallocation – deploying employees to other roles in the company or to sister companies within the group.

To minimise the risk of breaching employment contracts, employers should consult and communicate these changes with employees before implementation, and to ensure that they have the contractual right to effect such changes. Otherwise, the employee’s consent is required, and should be properly documented.

If the employee disagrees, consider terminating the employment contract with contractual notice and then offering a new revised contract.

The Singapore Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has cautioned that irresponsible or unfair treatment may result in employers being denied future government reliefs (including the Jobs Support Scheme), and other work pass privileges. It would be best to consult a specialist employment lawyer before implementing changes to ensure compliance with the legislation and government advisories.

If an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19, what are the employer’s obligations to the employee?

The employee’s absence from work should be considered as paid hospitalisation leave, and employers should re-assign his/her work during this period.

While an employee with mild symptoms may express willingness to work during hospitalisation, employers should exercise caution in accommodating this, and should only assign non-urgent tasks, if at all. If the employee is on a commission-based salary structure, it is even more important for employers to have proper processes in place when re-assigning clients, and in selecting who should “inherit” these clients, to avoid future disputes.

Employers must ensure that there is no improper use or disclosure of personal data, including divulging the identity of the confirmed COVID-19 case to other employees or the public, unless required by law or for contact tracing purposes.