Covid-19 outbreak places more responsibility on employers to safeguard employees

1 June 2020

This period of our employment history shows us how important health and wellness in the workplace is.

We have good health and safety regulations and systems in the country but we need to revisit many of these systems in order to ensure that we can protect the staff in every environment.

The Employment and Labour Ministry, in conjunction with the Health Ministry, has given us regulations that are applicable during the Covid-19 period.

These regulations are to be strictly enforced and should be respected beyond the Covid-19 period.

Once we have both adhered to the actual regulations and the spirit thereof, it is important for us to see what ever else can be done by the employer in order to ensure the staff are kept healthy, well and in turn productive.

We also must make sure every staff member is properly registered with both the Unemployment Insurance Fund or the UIF and the Workmen’s Compensation Fund (WCF).

All persons who are employed, in terms of the legislation must be registered with the WCF and the employer must pay the annual assessment fees.

The fund in turn will compensate any employee or their dependants should an accident or an illness be incurred at the workplace.

Every employer must register within seven days after the date on which the employee arrives.

Employers must fill in all the questions on the form and must provide a registration certificate from the Registrar of Companies if they are a company or a close corporation.

If they are sole owners of the business they must supply their ID.

Registration can be done through cfcallcentre@labour.gov.za or cfenquiries@labour.gov.za or call 086 0105 350.

Once the registration is successful the Compensation Commissioner will provide the employer with the registration number, this process under normal circumstances takes 21 days but I strongly believe it is going to take a lot longer now.

The employers are protected against civil claims if the employees get injured on duty or contract any disease such as Covid-19.

One of the problems we are probably going to experience is that once it is determined that the person contracted Covid-19 from the workplace then their business would have to place that person on sick leave after having lodged a claim with the fund.

This leave is separate from normal sick leave in that the person can be off for a lengthy period of time and would be entitled to at least three months of their salary over that three months that they are at home recovering.

This three months worth of salary would in turn be claimed from the fund in order to reimburse the business for the monies that were paid upfront to the employee.

The real issue is that the fund has been substantially dysfunctional for almost 20 years and it has taken them many years to reimburse the companies for the salaries that they paid upfront. Even temporary and casual workers must be registered.

A person who is doing apprenticeship or a learnership would have to be registered. If any worker dies as a result of an injury on duty or an illness contracted while on duty, their dependants would also be entitled to claim compensation. The legislation prevents any employee or their family suing their employers for damages in terms of common law.

There is a gap in the legislation in that there are many workers who are self employed or who are working in a-typical employment situations.

Invariably these workers are not registered with any fund and certainly not with UIF or Workmen’s Compensation. The compensation fund is a Schedule 3A public entity of the Department of Employment and Labour and is specifically there to provide compensation in an event of an occupational injury or occupational disease. It is interesting to note that domestic workers have been unable to register with the fund for the past 24 years, but we are hoping to see this changed within the next few months.

There is a review of the benefit structure to improve benefits and payments to employees and their beneficiaries. The fund was set up to be a fit for purpose medical aid scheme that is efficient, accountable and has credibility across its clientele.

Unfortunately, its enormous failure has not fulfilled its purpose and has to a large degree caused medical practitioners to refuse to see WCF patients.

This dysfunctional fund is going to be at the centre of trying to manage payments to employees who get sick at work from the Covid-19.

There will be a deluge of cases and we are expecting the ministry to look at civil society and private companies to help in this really trying time.

It would be wise for the fund to partner with a big insurance company or a large medical aid to ensure that the funds are distributed timeously and fairly to employees who get sick at work.

It is now the right time for the trade union movement to demand that this be put into place before their members get ill and before they have to suffer the non-payment from the fund.

Unions are well advised to know that the core business of the fund is to ensure that there are services, medical benefits and rehabilitation services.

The clients (employees) should receive specialised attention timeously and with as little administrative problems as possible.

Unfortunately, there have been weak internal control environments and poor compliance levels from many employers.

Over and above the fund, employers are well advised right now to ensure that they introduce employee wellness programs and protocols to go above and beyond the measurements as outlined for the Covid-19.

About 10 years ago Dr Ivor Blumenthal, who was the chief executive of the Service Seseta, introduced a tool kit designed to assist management in the employees’ health and wellness.

On reviewing this booklet it became obvious to me that many of the issues tackled by Dr Blumenthal and the originator of the wellness programme, Dr Susan Steinman, are more and more appropriate while we are tackling Covid-19 and wellness at work.

Each business is obliged to have a person who is in charge of health and wellness at the workplace and that person should be assessing the full ambit of the staff’s wellness as read with compliance and safety.

Health promotion will ensure that employees do everything possible to be as healthy as possible. The physical prevention of the disease entails the improvement of the entire employment environment.

It also means that we need to step in and help individuals so that we can ensure they build up their own immunity by exercise, eating properly and practise cleanliness.

Employers should offer staff a private sitting with a medical practitioner.

Source: IOL at https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/opinion/covid-19-outbreak-places-more-responsibility-on-employers-to-safeguard-employees-48597972