Coronavirus: private sector employees in limbo over quarantine leave

Questions raised over whether self-quarantined private sector workers will be paid for leave taken and if family members will also be covered

The situation concerning paid leave for self-quarantined workers in the private sector is still unclear (Stock photo)
The situation concerning paid leave for self-quarantined workers in the private sector is still unclear (Stock photo)

Questions have been raised over whether private sector employees who self-quarantine after visiting countries affected by the coronavirus will be paid for the leave taken.

In the past days, workers in the public and private sectors have been requested to self-quarantine for 14 days after returning from countries affected by the coronavirus.

But while the government has issued a circular setting out how public service workers will be paid, the situation for the private sector is less certain.

On Tuesday, the Health Ministry requested that people who experience a fever, cough or shortness of breath within two weeks of visiting Northern Italy (Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto and Emilia-Romagna), China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Iran or South Korea should self-quarantine for 14 days.

Moreover, the Malta Union of Teachers has requested the “self-isolation” of all students and teachers who had visited affected countries. In the private sector, Deloitte Malta, amongst other companies, also requested employees who had recently visited Italy to work from home as a precaution.

General Workers Union secretary general Josef Bugeja and Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin assistant director Mario Sacco told MaltaToday that the government had today issued a circular saying that employees of the civil service and public entities will be paid for the 14 days’ of quarantine if the visited affected countries until 28 February.

But for those workers who choose to visit such countries from 29 February onwards, while they will still be required to self-quarantine for 14 days, they will not be paid.

The list of affected countries will be continually updated by the government according to situation reports issued by the World Health Organisation.

When it comes to the private sector, however, the situation at the moment depends on whether the employees were covered by a collective agreement which included a quarantine clause, Bugeja said.

Bugeja said that all social partners would be meeting on Monday to discuss the the matter, together with other issues which have arisen.

He said that, during the meeting, he would be requesting that any measures agreed to on leave payments would apply to both public and private sectors.

Sacco confirmed the circular issued by the government has somewhat clarified things for public service employees, but highlighted that when it came to the private sector, discussions were still unfolding.

Both Bugeja and Sacco also highlighted another problem, related to whether family members of workers who had self-quarantined would also be paid for quarantining themselves.

“In a Facebook post yesterday, in which I tagged Health Minister Chris Fearne and the Superintendent for Public Health Charmaine Gauci, I asked what the procedure would be when it came to other members of the family of a person who has self-quarantined,” Sacco said, “In the case of a person who, for instance, visited China alone and then self-quarantined themselves, what should their family do? Should their wife also self-quarantine or should they go to work? If the person is entitled to paid leave, will their wife also be entitled to paid leave?”

In the case of government workers, Sacco pointed to a clause in their leave manual which states that "public service officers who are precluded by the Superintendent of Public Health from attending to their duties, owing to family/household members suffering from a contagious disease, are to be allowed special leave on full pay during the period of absence.”

"But the law does not provide for the private sector... this situation needs to be clarified,” Sacco said.

Bugeja also emphasised that there were still questions marks related to how family members of quarantined workers would be paid if they too went on self-quarantine, underscoring that this would be one of the issues to be discussed during next week’s social partners’ meeting.

He said that it would be unfair that employees should suffer if they went abroad to the affected countries before it was known that such areas carried a coronavirus risk.

Bugeja underlined, however, that people should act wisely in choosing which countries to visit, and should avoid affected countries now that the risk is known. “It’s not only an issue of whether they would be paid when they have to self-quarantine, but also a matter of their and others health and safety,” he said.

Another issue raised by Sacco relates to employees who work abroad, for instance freight haulers who visit Italy. “If they go to Italy three times a week, do they need to go in quarantine each time?,” he said.

Sacco said that the UĦM has been receiving frequent calls from employees who were unsure how self-quarantine would apply. “Certain workers are coming to us to say they are feeling lost about how they had to act,” he said, reiterating that things had to be clarified.

Earlier today, University of Malta pro rector Godfrey Baldacchino flagged the matter of which rules of engagement would apply for self-quarantine.

Writing on Facebook, Baldacchino asked what kind of leave would cover workers obliged to spend two weeks at home.

“Is this forced sick leave? Is it compulsory vacation leave? Is it special leave? For those who can work from home, this may not be an issue; but for others… who is to carry the financial burden?” he asked.

“Might sick workers go to work, and thus threaten to spread an epidemic, if they are not suitably supported while obliged to stay at home? Might employers threaten to dismiss employees if they do not avail themselves of their vacation leave when on self-quarantine? And should a 'contingency fund' compensate employers for lost productivity?” Baldacchino queried.

Baldacchino went on to suggest an urgent meeting of the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD) to discuss the matter and hammer out a set of suitable and equitable rules.