The unintended consequences of Covid-19
Businesses across the UK are suffering from the immediate practical and financial impacts of Covid-19; the outbreak has led to many employees being on sick leave due to illness or shielding requirements and employers have had to make difficult costs savings by laying off staff, reducing working hours or implementing salary reductions. Latest figures suggest that around 8.4 million employees in the UK have been furloughed and many employers are unfortunately having to make the unenviable decision to make redundancies. Employers are also now grappling with how to safely return employees to the workplace. However, the unintended consequences of these measures are now starting to become more and more apparent. In particular, certain groups of the working population are being more heavily impacted than others, which in turn has the potential to give rise to associated discrimination issues. The below touches on a few particular areas of concern where employers should take care to mitigate these unintended consequences.
Multiple reports and surveys, including reports from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, IZA Institute of Labor Economics and the Office for National Statistics, have demonstrated the increased burden that Covid-19 has placed on working parents and in particular on working mothers. Statistics have shown that working mothers have taken on more childcare and home education duties than fathers due to Covid-19, and mothers in two parent households are therefore doing only a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours of fathers. Working mothers are also more likely to have reduced their working hours, to have been furloughed and are more likely to lose their jobs.
This creates a serious and substantial risk that the pandemic will undo the progress made in gender equality, widen the gender pay gap further and lead to increased instances of sex discrimination. Employers should ensure they are acutely aware of this impact and consider ways in which to support working parents to minimise this concerning trend.
Ageism and older employees
As the pandemic has more heavily affected the older population, many older employees have been out of the workplace on sick leave (due to sickness or shielding requirements) or have potentially been furloughed. In addition the image of older people being ‘more vulnerable’ and ‘less able’ has been reinforced by the fact that the impact of the virus on older sufferers has been more severe. Even though this image is deeply flawed, it is nevertheless a perception that is being carried into the workplace and is problematic.
The combined effect of the above creates a risk of division in the workplace. There is potential for preferences to develop towards ‘younger’ stereotypes leading to the experience and ability of older employees being considered as less valuable. This results in the possibility of older employees to be treated detrimentally by being provided with fewer opportunities for progression, receiving poorer appraisals or being awarded lower bonuses, for example. Older people currently applying for jobs could also be hard hit by this perception as they may be less likely to secure a role against a younger candidate. Additionally, where employers unfortunately have to make redundancies, older employees may be seen as an easy target and be at greater risk given the above perceptions, or they may be pushed towards early retirement.
Employers should ensure that steps are taken to avoid this detrimental treatment and possible associated age discrimination.
Ageism and the ‘Covid Generation’
There are also growing concerns about the impact that the pandemic will have at the other end of the spectrum on young people, quickly becoming known as the ‘Covid generation’. The Covid generation are just entering into the workplace and are therefore bearing the brunt of job shortages, recruitment freezes and postponed start dates more so than their predecessors.
There is also a risk that younger employees will be also be subject to age discrimination during redundancy exercises. They may be seen as easier to let go as they are less entrenched in the business (particularly if they do not have two years’ service to gain rights against unfair dismissal). In addition, a common mistake made in redundancy processes is to adopt a ‘last in first out’ selection criteria, or to score employees based on length of service or experience. This practice could give rise to indirect age discrimination claims given the greater impact this would have on younger employees.
Homeworkers vs Office Workers
The division between those who can and those who can’t return to work may further intensify the discrimination related issues outlined above. Those who cannot return to work will likely include older employees (who may have health and safety concerns about returning to work due to susceptibility to more severe illness) and those with increased childcare responsibilities (which will largely consist of working mothers). In addition employees with underlying health conditions may not be able to return to the workplace as they will be required to continue shielding. Such health conditions may constitute a disability and the employee would therefore be subject to protection from discrimination under the Equality Act. Where other employees are returning work, an absence from the workplace could serve to increase detrimental treatment of employees in these groups.
There is also a risk of a rift in the workforce developing between those who are returning to the workplace and those who are not, particularly if returning employees would prefer to be working from home or, alternatively, don’t consider that those working from home are sharing the workload. Employers should accordingly ensure that ways to avoid these potential issues are factored in to their strategy for returning to the workplace.
If you have any questions on this topic or wish to discuss measures to avoid the risks detailed above please get in touch.
Find all our Covid-19 related advice here.
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