Workplace Issues & COVID-19 in Asia Pacific: Singapore
On 7 February 2020, due to heightened risk caused by the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, the Singapore government raised the country’s outbreak alert level to Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (“DORSCON”) orange. The Singapore government has since remained vigilant in setting up multiple lines of defences to contain the virus, and to prevent community spread amongst residents, having improved and strengthened its defensive measures based on insights gleaned from experience - most significantly during the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (“SARS”) in 2003. These include strict screening measures at airports, the imposition of travel restrictions, the suspension of Visas, and rigorous contact tracing to identify transmission clusters. These measures have proven relatively successful in limiting any unbridled spread of the virus in our island-state. As of 29 March 2020, there are 844 confirmed cases in Singapore, and 3 fatalities from the disease thus far.
The outbreak of COVID-19 is expected to affect Singapore’s economy significantly. On 16 February 2020, the Ministry of Trade and Industry of Singapore (“MTI”) has slashed Singapore's economic growth forecast for 2020 amid the COVID-19 outbreak, from a range of 0.5% - 2.5% to -0.5% - 1.5%. In particular, the MTI notes that the outbreak of COVID-19 has impacted Singapore’s tourism, transport, retail and F&B sectors, due to the travel restrictions imposed by Singapore and by other countries, and has caused a reduction in domestic consumption in Singapore as locals reduce activities such as shopping and eating out. To mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on their operations and to ensure business continuity, many employers have voluntarily taken precautionary measures to minimise any spread of the COVID-19 amongst its employees.
1. Are employers subject to any specific legislation in respect of COVID-19?
To date, there has been no legislation implemented in Singapore which specifically relate to the COVID-19 virus. Nonetheless, during this period, employers remain subject to other applicable legislation and guidelines in respect of workplace health and safety, employment, and infectious diseases.
As a starting point, employers should bear in mind that they should ensure compliance with the obligations owed to their employees under their respective employment contracts and the Employment Act 1968 (Chapter 91) of Singapore (the “Employment Act”). These include, among others, obligations relating to the timely payment of wages and sick leave entitlements.
In addition, under the Workplace Safety and Health Act 2006 (Chapter 354A) of Singapore (the “WSHA”), employers are also required to take all reasonably practicable measures as may be necessary to ensure the safety and health of their employees in the workplace.
As a general rule, employers should adopt the recommended practices set out in the general advisories and guidelines issued by the Ministry of Manpower (“MOM”) or Ministry of Health (“MOH”) in relation to COVID-19, from time to time. Such general advisories and guidelines are discussed further in subsequent questions below.
Quarantine Order/ Stay-Home Notice / Leave of Absence
Employers are advised by MOH to ensure that all employees under isolation orders abstain from visiting the workplace and comply with the relevant isolation order.
Such isolation orders include:
- (i) Quarantine Orders (“QO”):
QOs are issued to an individual who is, or is suspected to be, a carrier of an infectious disease, or a contact of a person confirmed to have an infectious disease. Any persons serving a quarantine order cannot leave the quarantine facility or his or her home and shall be deemed to be on paid sick leave.
Employers should remind employees to comply strictly with the QO, as it constitutes a legal order issued to individuals under the Infectious Diseases Act 1976 (Chapter 137) of Singapore and thus has legal force with severe penalties for non-compliance.
- (ii) Stay-Home Notice (“SHN”)
The new SHN was introduced on 17 February 2020. The SHN applies to Singapore residents and long-term pass holders returning to Singapore from high-risk areas such as mainland China, Iran, Northern Italy, and Korea, and replaces the previous Leave of Absence (“LOA”) scheme. Under the requirements of the SHN, returnees are required to remain in their homes at all times for a period of 14 days after their return from the foregoing countries. To provide context, under the preceding LOA scheme, such returnees were to remain at home as much as possible for 14 days, but could leave to attend to important matters or to purchase daily necessities.
In the event an employer or a foreign employee fails to abide by the SHN/LOA as set out above, MOM may take action by revoking the relevant work passes of the employee or suspending the work pass privileges of certain employers. As at 21 March 2020, MOM has revoked the work passes of 89 work pass holders. MOM has also suspended the work pass privileges of employers for periods ranging from one to three years, for failing to discharge their duties to ensure that their employees comply with the SHN requirements.
2. Can an employee refuse to attend work because they are concerned about contracting the virus?
In respect of any employee who is (i) not subject to the SHN/LOA or a QO and (ii) refuses to attend work in fear of contracting the virus, such employee is contractually obliged to attend work pursuant to the terms of his or her employment contract, unless the employer has consented to or given prior authorisation for such leave of absence to such employee. Employers can generally determine their responses to absence from work of such employees in line with the terms and conditions of the employment contracts, or company policies on absenteeism, medical and/or annual leave.
In any event, the employer should consider allowing flexibility in work arrangements so as to assure such employee that his/her health and safety is a priority to the employer, which might include allowing the employee to work from home, if practicable. In this regard, employers are advised to ensure their compliance with the MOM Advisory on Safe Distancing Measures at the Workplace issued on 13 March 2020, further details of which are set out in Question 5 below.
Further, employers should bear in mind their statutory obligations under the WSHA and ensure that they take, as far as is reasonably practicable, measures as are necessary to ensure the safety and health of their employees at work. As such, an employer who makes any decision which puts an employee at risk of contracting the COVID-19, without reasonable safety precautions, may be in breach of this duty. In this regard, in the event there are suspect or confirmed cases at the workplace, the Company should generally take such measures recommended by the MOM in its General Advisory for Confirmed or Suspect Cases, as set out in Question 3 below.
3. What should an employer do if an employee is suspected/confirmed as having the virus?
An employer should act in accordance with the General Advisory for Confirmed or Suspect Cases issued by the MOM.
In the event there is a suspect case at the workplace, the employer should remind its employees to:
- (i) monitor their health, including doing temperature checks at least twice daily;
- (ii) adopt good personal hygiene; and
- (iii) see a doctor immediately if they are unwell, and inform their supervisors or the HR department immediately. Such employees should be reminded to stay at home on sick leave even if they feel that their symptoms are mild.
In the event there is a confirmed case at the workplace, the employer should:
- (i) co-operate with the contact tracing officer from MOH and provide them with the requisite assistance and support in identifying persons at the workplace, including business associates, who may have had close contacts with the confirmed case;
- (ii) upon being notified of the confirmed case, immediately vacate and cordon-off the immediate section of the workplace premises where the confirmed case worked, and carry out a thorough cleaning and disinfecting of that section of the workplace premises;
- (iii) in respect of employees who are made to vacate their work stations or are pending assessment by MOH’s contract tracing officer, and whose job scope is such that working remotely is not feasible, exercise flexibility and treat such absences as paid hospitalisation leave or paid outpatient sick leave; and
- (iv) generally provide timely information to employees on latest developments and reassure employees and other relevant persons, e.g. customers, of the measures being taken to ensure their well-being at the workplace.
4. What information is an employer entitled to require from its employees about their exposure to the virus?
In view of the urgency of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Personal Data Protection Commission (“PDPC”) has issued an advisory on personal data collection for contact tracing and other response measures (“PDPC Advisory”).
The PDPC Advisory states that, in the present COVID-19 outbreak, organisations may collect, use or disclose personal data of visitors to premises, including visitors’ NRIC, FIN or passport numbers, without consent during this period to carry out contact tracing and other response measures, as this is necessary to respond to an emergency that threatens the life, health or safety of other individuals, pursuant to sections 1(b) of the Second, Third and Fourth Schedules to the Personal Data Protection Act (No. 26 of 2012) Singapore (“PDPA”). Employers should note that any health and travel declarations collected from employees would also constitute personal data under the PDPA.
Employers are reminded to comply with the Data Protection Provisions of the PDPA in respect of any personal data obtained from visitors or their employees, such as making reasonable security arrangements to protect the personal data in their possession from unauthorised access or disclosure, and ensuring that the personal data is not used for other purposes without consent or authorisation under the law. Employers should also expunge such personal data after this period, when it is no longer required for contact tracing purposes.
5. What steps should an employer take to ensure it maintains a safe workplace?
Generally, an employer may take the following precautionary measures, as advised by MOM in its General Advisory for Workplace Measures in response to the DORSCON Orange Situation:
- (i) developing a business continuity plan, which should be communicated clearly to employees and might include split team arrangements for frontline staff, allowing backend staff to work from home where feasible, implementing temperature screening where necessary to control and log access of customers/visitors to their workplace and ensuring visitors/customers are advised to abstain from visiting the premises if they have recent travel history to the aforementioned high-risk areas/countries and are placed under LOA/SHN and requiring relevant travel declarations, if possible;
- (ii) reminding their employees to take care of their own health and observe good personal hygiene, and requiring their employees to take their temperature at least twice daily and to check for respiratory symptoms;
- (iii) paying special attention to vulnerable employees, such as older employees, pregnant employees and employees who have underlying medical conditions, in planning their operations or work schedules;
- (iv) supporting their employees’ needs during this period by adopting flexible work arrangements if an employee needs to stay at home for non-work related reasons relating to the COVID-19 situation, for example, in respect of caregiving needs for family members or for children who are unable to report to school or childcare; and
- (v) ensuring that employees who are under LOA/SHN abstain from visiting the workplace and can work from home if possible, but if working from home is not possible, to provide additional paid leave for such period.
Further and in addition to the foregoing General Advisory for Workplace Measures, MOM had more recently issued an updated MOM Advisory on Safe Distancing Measures at the Workplace on 26 March 2020, pursuant to which an employer must put in place, among others, the following strict safe distancing measures:
- (i) where employees can perform their work by telecommuting from home, the employer must ensure that they do so. Measures could include reviewing the work processes and providing the necessary IT equipment to employees;
- (ii) for job roles or functions where employees cannot work from home, such as frontline operations and fieldwork at construction sites, shipyards or plants, employers must take the following precautions:
- (a) reducing the need for and duration of physical interactions, including minimising the need for physical meetings, e.g. by using tele-conferencing facilities. If there is a critical need for physical meetings to proceed, the number of attendees should be limited and the duration shortened;
- (b) ensuring clear physical spacing of at least 1m apart for work stations by clearly demarcating such work stations that can be used to achieve the 1m spacing (such measures should also apply to meeting rooms and all other common spaces);
- (c) staggering working hours to reduce possible congregation of employees at common spaces such as entrances/exits. The staggered working hours must be implemented over at least three 1-hourly blocks, with not more than half of the employees reporting to work within each 1-hour block;
- (d) deferring or cancelling all events which involve close and prolonged contact amongst participants which could include conferences, seminars and exhibitions. Social gatherings at the workplace, such as the celebration of birthdays, should be kept to no more than 10 persons at any one time, with safe distancing measures in place;
- (e) implementing or enhancing shift arrangements for suitable workplace settings such as those in manufacturing, while extending operational hours to maintain production output, or alternatively, looking into split team arrangements where employees are assigned to work under alternate teams (e.g. Team A & Team B) and are deployed according to different work schedules or at different work sites;
- (f) employers who are service buyers should request their suppliers/contractors to implement similar safe distancing measures, so that operations and business interactions with these suppliers/contractors are kept safe, and where physical interactions are still necessary, e.g. for the delivery of goods, employers must adopt precautionary measures such as scheduling delivery times by different suppliers in a staggered manner and keep the durations of such transactions as short as possible; and
- (g) for employers who have frontline or customer-facing operations, such employers should adopt queue management measures as recommended by the Enterprise Singapore (ESG)for safe distancing measures for businesses to reduce physical interactions between service staff and customers as well as amongst customers, which could include mobile or self-help ordering or payment options and cashless or contactless payment modes.
Employers should note that as of 23 March 2020, MOM has issued 13 stop-work orders (SWOs) and 8 remedial orders (ROs) to workplaces which disregarded the need for safe distancing. The SWOs and ROs will be in force until rectifications have been made. As such, employers should, where applicable, ensure their compliance with all the measures set out in the MOM Advisory on Safe Distancing Measures at the Workplace.
The list of measures set out above is non-exhaustive, and employers should monitor and comply with any further advisories and guidelines which MOH and MOM may issue from time to time. In light of the rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 situation, employers are strongly advised to keep abreast with any updates to such existing advisories and guidelines.
6. Are there any statutory requirements or best practice guidelines?
As mentioned in Question 1 above, there are no statutory requirements imposed in respect of the COVID-19 outbreak. Nonetheless, businesses should at all times comply with the Employment Act, WSHA and general advisories and guidelines issued by MOM/MOH (in particular, the MOM Advisory on Safe Distancing Measures at the Workplace) and other governmental authorities, as discussed above.
7. Can an employer require an employee not to attend work as part of its infection control measures?
An employer may, as part of their business continuity measures, direct their employees to work from home.
8. Does an employer have to pay sick pay to an employee who is self-isolating?
Please refer to Question 2 above. In respect of any employee who is not subject to a SHN/LOA or a QO but chooses to self-isolate, employers can generally determine their treatment towards such self-isolation, based on the agreement between them, as well as the company policy on absenteeism, (paid or unpaid) medical and/or annual leave. In cases where the employer has allowed such employee to self-isolate on the basis that he/she shall work from home, the employer would have to pay the employee as per normal.
On the other hand, in respect of employees who were placed under a LOA/SHN, employers are encouraged to allow such employees to work from home. If working from home is not possible, employers are encouraged to provide paid leave for the LOA/SHN period over and above employees’ annual leave entitlements. Eligible employers who provide additional paid leave to their employees on LOA/SHN will also be able to apply for assistance under the LOA/SHN Support Programme by MOM, as well as the foreign worker levy waiver for the LOA/SHN period.
Alternatively, MOM advises employers to adopt any of the following options, or a combination of them:
- (i) to treat employees’ LOA/SHN as paid hospitalisation leave or paid outpatient sick leave;
- (ii) to allow employees to apply for annual leave;
- (iii) to allow employees to use advanced paid leave or apply for no pay leave in the case of employees who have used up their leave entitlements; or
- (iv) other mutually agreed arrangements between the employers and employees / unions.
9. When is an employer required to close its workplace and if it does, is it still required to pay its staff?
Generally, unless ordered by MOH or any other government authorities to do so, in the event there is a confirmed case at a workplace, employers will only have to ensure the vacation of and cordoning off of the immediate section of the workplace where the confirmed case worked, as set out above in Question 3 above. MOH has stated in its General Advisory for Confirmed or Suspect Cases that there is no need to further vacate the building or close down other sections of the workplace (other than for purposes of carrying out a thorough cleaning and disinfection of that workplace), if there has been no sustained and close contact with the confirmed case.
After the employer has received notification of a confirmed case, should certain employees be asked to vacate their work stations or are pending assessment by MOH’s contract tracing officers, employers should consider if it is feasible for such employees to work from home. If not, MOM advises that employers should exercise flexibility and treat such absences as paid hospitalisation leave or outpatient sick leave.
10. Is an employer entitled to require its employee to see a doctor?
Employers have no specific right to require employees to seek medical advice, unless the relevant employment contract expressly provides for such right. However, given the current circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, if employers have reasonable concerns that an employee is visibly unwell or showing symptoms, and/or that the health of the other employees will be affected, it might be reasonable for employers to make such a demand on the basis that they have an obligation under the WSHA to take reasonably practicable measures to ensure the safety and health of all employees.
11. Can an employer require its employee to provide it with a copy of their medical report?
As mentioned above, employers have no specific right to require employees to visit a doctor. In respect of employees who have completed their mandated quarantine either pursuant to a LOA or SHN, it is noted that MOM has, in its FAQs on COVID-19, stated that such employees can return to work if they remain well, and that it is not necessary for them to undergo any additional tests to detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus. In any event, as advised by MOM, doctors will not issue any letters or memo to certify such persons to be free from the COVID-19 infection.
12. Can an employee refuse to work with another employee who is suspected of having the virus?
As a starting point, employees are obliged to comply with lawful directions from employers to carry out their duties under their employment contracts, which might include working with such other employee in the course of their employment. While there is no specific right of refusal for employees to do so (save in accordance with or as might be provided in the respective employment contracts), employers should keep in mind their obligations under the WSHA to ensure the safety and health of all employees, and refrain from putting any employee at risk of the COVID-19 infection.
To prevent such situations from arising, employers may wish to implement an effective business continuity plan as soon as practicable.