11 March 2020

The coronavirus has appeared in Hungary as well: when writing this article 9 infected and 67 quarantined persons are registered. Because of the virus, the employers may have headaches, too since often it is not obvious how the situation shall be handled from labour law perspective. In this short article we explain the relevant legal provisions by presenting some typical cases.

1. What kind of precautionary measures shall the employer take?

The first question which may arise in relation to the virus is what the employer’s related obligations are. In fact, the employer shall provide a work environment which does not endanger the employees’ health.

The scale of the measurements is rather wide, to start with calling the attention of the employees to wash hands regularly, through the provisions of masks or protective gloves until the shut-down of the whole workplace.

To decide which is the appropriate measurement in a given situation shall be a matter of the discretion of the employer based on the assessment of the unique circumstances. It is proposed to consult with the employer’s EHS (health and safety) exert and the company doctor.

2. May the employee refuse to work?

Until the employee is not declared as unfit for work, he shall show up at the workplace. In relation to the coronavirus the employee may be declared as unfit for work in two cases: if he is infected with the virus or he is placed in isolation (quarantine). In these cases, the employee is entitled to sickness benefit.

However, if the employee is not declared as unfit for work, he cannot refuse to work meaning that he has to come to work. In case the employee stays absent from work without a justified cause this may be the reason of an extraordinary termination.

Though, there is exception from the above general rule: the employee may refuse to perform the instruction if it would directly and seriously endanger his life, physical integrity or health. That would be the for example if the employer wanted to the send the employee to a business travel to Italy.

3. May the employer oblige the employee to stay away from the workplace?

But what if the employee who is not infected thus medically fit for work would like to come to work but the employer does not want that for the protection of the other employees’ health, because the worker in question had his time of his life in the Venice carnival?

In case the employee’s position makes it possible, in this case the “home office” may be an option. Besides, the employer, complying with the deadlines set forth by the law, may schedule a part of the employee’s vacation.

If neither the home office, nor scheduling the vacation is possible, the employer can still decide not to provide the employee with work or oblige him to stay away from the workplace. In this case, the employer shall pay base salary to the employee based on the provisions of the downtime.

4. What happens if the employer cannot provide work?

Unfortunately, it can happen that some raw material does not arrive because of the coronavirus-situation and therefore the employer cannot provide work to the employees. In this case the employer may try to handle the situation with work-organization measurements (e.g. modification of work schedule, scheduling vacation) and if this is not possible, the provisions of the above-mentioned downtime shall be applicable.

If the employer fails to provide work for the scheduled working time the employee will be entitled to base salary, unless it was because of an unavoidable external reason.

The current practice does not consider as unavoidable external reasons which arise within the scope of the employer’s operation. This can be for example whether the raw material or equipment necessary for the performance of the work is available or not. This means that in case the raw material does not arrive from your supplier and therefore manufacturing is stopped, the employer shall pay base salary to the employee.

5. Shall the employer shut down the workplace?

The question may arise whether the workplace needs to be shut down if it was somehow affected by the coronavirus (e.g. the employee or a visitor was infected or a carrier of the virus).

In Hungary, in case of an epidemic, the medical government body may restrict or forbid the operation of an institution which may help the spreading of the epidemic. In case the competent organ orders the shutdown of the workplace because of the epidemic-affection, obviously the employer shall comply with this obligation. In this case the employees will receive sickness benefit.

In case the authority does not order the shutdown of the workplace, the employer may still decide based on his own to close the workplace for the provision of the work environment which does not endanger the employees’ health. based on the rules of the downtime, if the shut down was the employer’s own decision, the employees are entitled to based wage depending whether the shut-down happened because of an unavoidable external reason or not. Although the practice is not entirely clear, it may be an unavoidable external reason if the employer cannot prevent the risk of epidemic with other reasonable measurements (e.g. providing masks, ordering respective employees to stay away).