Since January 2020, Coronavirus COVID-19 has spread rapidly around the world, causing massive disruption to business and everyday life as well as thousands of deaths.
The French Government has reacted in several stages. After issuing recommendations for barrier measures, it decided to close schools and more recently, it ordered the general confinement of French people and the closure of many establishments deemed non-essential in order to protect public health. The Government’s latest recommendations for employers can be found here (available in French only).
Consequently, for companies operating in France, three types of employees can be distinguished (excluding sick employees, who are on sick leave, or establishments forced to close):
- Employees are, in principle, working from home. Homeworking has now become the requirement for all jobs which allow it, until further notice;
- For those employees whose job does not allow homeworking, a number of requirements must be complied with in order to limit physical contact;
- Employees, even if not sick, can benefit from a specific sickness leave compensated by the social security authorities under certain conditions (if they care for one or more children under the age of 16, or if they have a specific health condition which is renders them an enhanced risk). This leave is considered to be sickness leave, and companies may be required to maintain all or part of the salary of the employee concerned.
1. What rights and obligations do employers have?
All companies with employees in France have a safety obligation towards them. This obligation aims at protecting the physical and mental health of employees at work.
In practice, this obligation implies the following measures in relation to the Coronavirus threat:
- Inform employees about the usual hygiene and prevention measures in case of symptoms;
- Update the single risk health and safety assessment document in the company;
- Implement protective measures for employees;
- Comply with the obligations laid down by the French Government in terms of health and safety.
Where they exist, employee representatives must be involved in these actions.
In operational terms, companies that have implemented a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) are naturally better able to deal with the Coronavirus crisis and must refer to the instructions in that plan.
To compensate for the decrease in business activity, a company can take the following steps:
- Ask employees to take paid leave (with their agreement), or possibly require them to take leave (this is only available for employees who have already set leave dates, in accordance with the provisions of the Labour Code);
- Use partial activity schemes. These schemes allow the employer to reduce the working hours of employees or to temporarily close down the business establishment or part of it, while at the same time partially compensating employees for the loss of salary due to hours which are not worked.
Certain options may also be considered in the event of an increase in activity (in particular for employees who would be required to work on site): and these include overtime and reduced rest periods.
Termination of employment contracts is not envisaged in the short term in France, not only in view of the limitations in French legislation regarding economic dismissals, but also because of recent Government announcements concerning the prevention of dismissals.
The Government has announced measures to support businesses, including :
- Softening conditions to benefit partial activity schemes;
- Spreading tax and social security charges.
2. And for employees?
In some cases, employees can make use of their right to withhold their services, i.e. the right for employees to cease work where they have reasonable and legitimate grounds to believe that the workplace presents a serious and imminent danger to their health.
If the company demonstrates that it has taken all necessary preventive and protective measures, based on official recommendations, the exercise of the right of withdrawal will not be available.
The French Parliament has just passed an emergency law to deal with the epidemic, authorising the Government to put in place rapid measures through ordinances. These include adapting labour law to enable companies to cope with the organisational difficulties they face (using sector-wide or company collective agreements authorising the employer to impose dates for taking days off up to a maximum of six days and the possibility for the employer to unilaterally impose or modify the number of days worked or reduce working hours, etc.). The situation in France is continually changing and should therefore be monitored closely.