Monkeypox advice for employers: Working from home and sick pay

As the number of monkeypox cases in the UK rises, employers have been advised to conduct risk assessments and ensure they follow standard sickness procedures if a worker becomes infected. Ashleigh Webber pulls together advice for employers whose staff may be infected or at risk of infection with monkeypox.

There have been 79 confirmed monkeypox cases in the UK (77 in England, one in Scotland and one in Wales) as of 26 May, but the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said the risk of the virus spreading around the general population is low. Many countries in Europe and north America are seeing increasing numbers of people with monkeypox, a disease usually only found in central and western Africa.

Health protection teams have been advising people who are considered to be high risk contacts of confirmed cases to isolate at home for up to 21 days, which may mean they are unable to work.

Although self-isolation is only advised and not currently a legal requirement for close contacts, employers have been urged to allow affected individuals to work from home where possible. Anyone who contracts the virus and is unable to work should be paid in line with usual sick pay policies, employment law experts have said.

The UKHSA has not yet offered any specific monkeypox advice for employers.

Sick pay for staff with monkeypox and their contacts

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, says: "It goes without saying that if an employee has a confirmed case of monkeypox, they should be treated under normal sickness rules. Most symptoms clear up within 14-21 days so they would receive statutory sick pay (SSP) or [full] sick pay, whichever is stipulated in their contract of employment, as with any other illness, if they met the qualifying criteria.

Official monkeypox advice

World Health Organization

UK Health Security Agency

National Health Service

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

It would be "sensible" to advise close contacts to work from home, adds Palmer.

"If the person cannot work from home, then the question of pay crops up. SSP will not be payable for the isolation period unless the employee gets too ill to work during it. In a similar way to the current Covid isolation position, employers will have to decide whether they will require close contacts with a confirmed case to not come to work for the 21 days or whether they will still require them to come in," she says.

"If they require them to stay at home then this should be on full pay. Anything less than that is likely to risk an unlawful deduction claim as it's the employer's choice to temporarily withdraw work from the employee."

Sue Andrews, HR and business manager at KIS Finance and a CIPD fellow, says the potential cost of paying staff to self-isolate will be low due to the relatively small number of people infected with monkeypox, but employers should consider the future impact of any policy decisions made now should cases grow.

"As monkeypox is a relatively mild condition, staff may also be able to work from home for at least some of their period of isolation if they feel well enough," says Andrews.

"Given the highly contagious nature of monkeypox employers would be advised to seriously consider paying sick pay during periods of isolation rather than risk staff hiding the fact that they have contracted the illness or been in close contact with someone who has, in order to avoid losing pay.

"Of course, this represents an additional cost for employers, but this has to be weighed against the potential negative PR of not being supportive to staff and risking the further spread of the disease."

Beware of discrimination

A notable proportion of cases have been identified among the LGBT+ population, particularly men who have sex with men. People in this group have been advised to be aware of the symptoms, particularly if they have recently had a new sexual partner.

Symptoms of monkeypox include fever, headache, muscle aches and exhaustion, followed by a rash most commonly found on the hands, arms, feet or legs.

Judith Rhule, an employment partner at law firm Spencer West, says employers should be careful not to make "assumptions" about LGBT+ staff or African employees.

"Monkeypox is endemic in remote parts of central and west Africa. There are also reports from the US that those in the gay and bisexual community are at greater risk of contracting the virus," she says.

"Misinformation about the disease is spreading on social media and employers will need to be careful that they do not make assumptions that staff from the African or gay and bisexual communities are more likely to bring the virus into the workplace. Employers should not treat staff from these communities less favourably. If they do, they may be exposing themselves to the risk of a claim for race or sexual orientation discrimination."

Employers may face claims for unlawful deduction of wages if they tell staff who cannot work from home to isolate but do not pay them at their full rate of pay, warns Rhule.

Minimising risk of monkeypox infections

Employers should also consider how they might minimise the risk of monkeypox spreading at work. Adjustments may be required to minimise the risk to pregnant or immunosuppressed people, suggests Palmer.

She says that those who have unprotected exposure to infectious materials should be excluded from work for 21 days if their work involves contact with immunosuppressed people, pregnant women, or children. "Again, working from home could be a solution here, or moving the employee to different duties which does not involve contact with those people."

"Although monkeypox is not generally passed through the air, colleagues may be concerned if they become aware that someone they are located near to is a close contact. Employers who don't require close contacts to isolate should consider some adjustments to where they sit or work.

"Close contacts with a confirmed case are advised to notify the contact tracing system. Employees claiming to be a close contact should be able to provide their employer with evidence of their contact with the contact tracing system."

Rhule adds that organisations that do not require close contacts to isolate should conduct risks assessments and put safeguards in place to protect vulnerable people.

Prepare for changes in monkeypox advice

Despite the virus presenting a low risk to the general population, Palmer advises employers to be prepared should the situation change quickly.

"An important point to make is that monkeypox is not another Covid. We might be drawn to think this because of the use of 'isolation' but experts say it poses a very low threat to the wider public. It is not as easily transmissible as Covid, and recovery is fully expected. However, as we saw during the pandemic, things can change quickly," she explains.

Monkeypox advice for employers in healthcare

The World Health Organization has advised that health workers caring for patients with suspected or confirmed monkeypox should implement standard contact and droplet infection control precautions.

This includes all workers in the healthcare setting, including cleaners and laundry staff who may be exposed to bedding, towels  or personal belongings. Samples taken from people with suspected monkeypox should be handled by trained laboratory staff.