1. What measures can be implemented by employers in relation to employees who have returned from the territories affected by the virus?
Save for limited exceptions that apply to diplomats, health care employees and a few other categories, persons who have entered in Estonia on March 17, 2020 or later are required to stay in their place of residence for 14 days after crossing the Estonian border under the order of the Government of the Republic. Consequently, employees returning from their travels in other countries are automatically required to self-isolate and are, under the Employment Contract Act, required to inform the employer of their absence and its duration. If it is not possible for such employees to work from home, the respective isolation period is not required to be remunerated.
Persons that have returned from abroad have a duty to self-isolate for 14 days and not to go to work. Accordingly, employers are entitled to deny entry into the workplace for such employees who have returned from abroad and have not complied with the said duties. In case it is not possible to ensure remote work for such employees, employer can temporarily suspend the employees without pay.
Persons who have entered to Lithuania from abroad have to register with the National Public Health Centre by filling in special form and are required to stay in their place of residence for 14 days after crossing the Lithuania border under the order of the Cabinet of the Ministers. Consequently, the employees returning from their travels in other countries are automatically required to self-isolate and are required to inform the employer of their absence and its duration. The Employers are obligated to order the employees to work remotely. If the persons breach isolation regime they can be punished, and the employers can suspend them from work without remuneration.
Taking into account that Belarus has not announced emergency situation or quarantine regime, there are no specific measures that can be implemented by employers in relation to employees who have returned from the affected territories. All the measures (remote work, paid or unpaid leave, etc.) can be taken upon consent of the employee.
2. Is it possible to temporarily reduce the number of employees or impose part time work?
An employer may extraordinarily terminate an employment contract if the continuance of the employment relationship on the agreed conditions becomes impossible due to a decrease in the work volume or reorganisation of work or other cessation of work. The redundancy would be of permanent nature, but employers are, of course, free to re-hire the employees when the situation improves.
As an alternative, employers may reduce the pay of the employees unilaterally for up to three months over a period of 12 months to a reasonable extent, but not below the minimum wage (currently EUR 584), if payment of the agreed wages would be unreasonably burdensome for the employer due to unforeseen economic circumstances beyond its control. Employees may reduce the working hours in proportion to the pay cut.
The same as in other situations, employers are entitled to perform redundancies also as a result of consequences of the virus. Whether the redundancy is temporary or permanent, is completely at the employer’s discretion. Upon implementing the redundancy, employer is not obliged to ensure re-hiring of the employees after certain time – it is the employer’s choice. Switching to part-time work by reducing the employee’s salary is possible only by agreement of the parties since such changes entail amendments to the employment contract that are possible only subject to mutual agreement. Since redundancy is a lengthy and costly procedure, the best solution would be to enter in some kind of agreement with the employees.
An employer may terminate an employment contract if the continuance of the employment relationship on the agreed conditions becomes impossible due to a decrease in the work volume or reorganisation of work or other cessation of work. Whether the redundancy is temporary or permanent, is completely at the employer’s choice. Upon implementing the redundancy the employer is not obligated to ensure re-hiring of the employees after certain time – it is the employer’s choice. Switching to part-time work by reducing the employee’s salary is possible only by agreement of the parties since such changes entail amendments to the employment contract that are possible only subject to mutual agreement. However, the termination of the agreements is not recommended due to the approach of the Cabinet of the Ministers encouraging keeping all employees employed. The best recommendable solution in the given situation would declaration of the idle time (down time). Employer shall pay at least minimum wage/salary (607 € monthly gross). 60 % or 90 % of the employer’s costs will be covered as by the state as the subsidy from guarantee fund. The employer must undertake to keep employees employed at least for 3 months. The applications to the guarantee fund will be accepted starting from April 9, 2020.
Redundancies can take place only due to relevant organizational, economic or financial reasons – which can be triggered by COVID-19 pandemic – with 2-month notification of employees and compensation equal to 3 average monthly salaries. Redundancy means employment termination, but both parties can agree on new employment once the situation becomes stable again. Part-time work or salary reduction can be unilaterally imposed by employers only through changing the essential working conditions, which shall be duly grounded. If an employee does not agree on new working conditions during 1-month notice period, the employment can be terminated. Upon mutual agreement of the parties any changes can be implemented.
3. What are the duties of employers in relation to work safety?
Employers are required to ensure a safe working environment to the employees and are consequently required to suspend employees with symptoms of the virus. Sending of employees to business trips is to be avoided. Where it’s possible, an employer may ask employees to work from home. An employer may also decide to close the workplace as a preventive measure. In this case an employer must continue to pay employees and grant other rights and benefits to them under their employment contracts and legislation.
In line with the order of the Cabinet of Ministers regarding announcement of emergency situation, employers have the following duties:
- to cancel or postpone business trips abroad;
- to ensure that persons with acute symptoms of respiratory infections are not admitted to work in positions related to potential health risks for other persons.
Taking into account the employer’s duty to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for employees, it is advisable to consider the following additional measures depending on the business specifics of the company:
- provide recommendations for employees regarding compliance with personal hygiene and prevention measures in line with the guidelines published on the website of SPKC;
- introduce remote work to the extent possible;
- implement increased disinfection measures.
If the employer suspects symptoms of Covid-19 or other symptoms, employer can send the employee for a health check.
The employers have to ensure health and safety at work. Taking into account decisions of the Cabinet of the Ministers, the employers are obliged to organize working of the employees from home (remotely). In exceptional cases the employees can work from the office. If the employees refuse to work remotely the employer can suspend those employees from work without remuneration. The employers must ensure the efficient disinfection in the premises of the company according to the recommendations of National public health centre. All meetings if arranged must ensure that the distance between the participants would not be les that 2.5 meters. The employers must ensure that the employees would comply with the personal hygiene. If symptoms of COVID 19 appear, the employers must order such person to immediately leave the premises and report to the health institution.
There are no specific COVID-19 related duties of employers in relation to work safety. Taking into account the general duty to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for employees, it is advisable to consider the following additional measures:
- provide recommendations for employees regarding compliance with personal hygiene and preventive measures in line with the guidelines of the Ministry of Health;
- introduce remote work, if possible;
- implement increased disinfection measures.
4. Are there any support measures for employers introduced by the government?
Compensation of salary
On March 19, 2020 the Estonian government approved the relief measures for the employees subject to salary cut due to decrease of work.
The relief measure will be made available to the companies that meet two out of the following three criteria:
1) The sales or income of the company has decreased by at least 30 percent in comparison to the same period last year.
2) The company cannot provide work to at least 30 percent of its employees due to the coronavirus.
3) The company has reduced the wages of its employees by at least 30 percent.
The Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund will compensate 70% of the average gross wages of the employees (calculated on the basis of the last 12 months), but not more than EUR 1,000 per month. Employers shall have the obligation, while receiving the aid, to pay at least EUR 150 per month to their every employee. The taxes shall be paid by the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund and by the employers themselves.
Employers can use the measure during two months between March 1, 2020 and May 31, 2020. Applications for the relief measures will likely be accepted from April.
According to the information available, the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund allocates 250 million euros from its reserves for the above mitigation measures.
Temporary measures relating to foreign employees
Foreigners who had statutory grounds to reside in Estonia on March 12, 2020 and are facing obstacles in leaving the country are deemed to have a statutory ground to remain in Estonia also after the expiry of their visa or residence permit. They are not required to file for a prolongation of their visa or residence permit. Processing of new visa, residence permit and short-term employment applications has been suspended for the time being.
On 17 March, 2020 the Latvian government has announced that support will be granted in the form of payment of the employer’s part of sick leave, i.e., days 2-10 of the sick leave. The Ministry of Welfare has been charged with the task to come up with detailed suggestions how to implement this in practice. We will provide more detailed information once it will be available.
On 19 March, 2020 it was announced that the Cabinet of Ministers will approve a special list of commercial activity areas affected by the crisis. The state will cover up to 75% of the monthly salary for idle time but not more than EUR 700 per month for employers of the affected areas. The list of affected areas and further details are not available yet. The support will be effective retroactively from 13 March.
On 16 March the Cabinet of the ministers announced plan of assistance for business. One of the implemented assistance measures is to cover by state funding, jointly and severally, up to 3 months, a part of employees’ remuneration for idle time or partial idle time. It is set out that employee must be paid not less than the minimum monthly salary (MMS), where the part of state funds is in the amount of 60% or 90 % thereof, yet not more than MMS.
No support measures for employers are introduced by the government.
Regarding related employment issues please contact COBALT Estonia Partner Karina Paatsi, COBALT Latvia Partner Toms Šulmanis, COBALT Lithuania Legal Counsel Dr Dalia Foigt-Norvaišienė and COBALT Belarus Managing Associate Anastasia Bykowskaya.