The Coronavirus Act 2020 was passed into law on 25 March 2020. The Act contains provisions for Emergency Volunteering Leave (“EVL”), which will enable employees and workers to take EVL in blocks of 2, 3 or 4 weeks’ statutory unpaid leave.
EVL has been introduced to help support essential health and social care services, as volunteers play a critical role in caring for the most vulnerable in our society, particularly during the current coronavirus pandemic.
To take EVL, the worker needs to give their employer 3 working days’ notice and produce a certificate from an appropriate authority (NHS bodies, local councils, London borough councils etc) certifying that:
- they have been approved as an emergency volunteer in health or social care (no other functions have been identified in the legislation); and
- they will be acting as an emergency volunteer from the date, and for the period, specified in the certificate.
The provisions do not apply to employers with fewer than 10 employees, civil servants, the military, police and parliamentary and commission staff.
We are currently awaiting further details from the Government on the scheme, as it is not currently clear who exactly will be classified as an emergency volunteer or how public authorities assess applications and grant certificates.
Emergency volunteers will be entitled to a travel and subsistence allowance from the government, and will also be entitled to compensation for loss of earnings where they have lost earnings by volunteering. The appropriate rate of compensation has not yet been determined by the Government. It is also not clear whether employees will be able to claim compensation under the EVL scheme if they choose to participate in the EVL scheme while also furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
There is no provision for employers to be able to refuse leave, for example because of operational need, or to unilaterally defer a period of EVL to a more convenient time.
The same statutory protection will apply for those taking EVL as for those taking statutory family leave, in that their contract of employment will continue as normal except for terms about remuneration. Employees will have the right to return to the same job on no less favourable terms and conditions, and they must not be subjected to a detriment or dismissed for taking or requesting EVL. Any such dismissal will be deemed automatically unfair, which means and the compensation for such a claim is uncapped. Employees do not need to have two years’ employment in order to bring a claim for unfair dismissal in these circumstances.
Further details on the functioning of the EVL scheme have not yet been provided, and although the Coronavirus Act 2020 has been passed into law, a statutory instrument must now be passed to implement EVL. However, employers should bear the new legislation in mind, and consider allowing employees to take volunteering leave wherever possible in anticipation of the relevant statutory regulations coming into force in the near future.