As most Singaporeans would now be aware, the Ministry of Health announced a tightening of restrictions in Singapore to curb the rise in Covid-19 community cases. This announcement came shortly after the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had just earlier in May also announced a slew of tightened safe management measures (SMMs) which employers are required to abide by.
In this update, we will examine the latest measures put in place which are applicable to businesses and the arising implications.
Whilst companies were just recently in April allowed to have 75% of their staff return to the office (which was in early may reduced to 50%) and work from home (WFH) was no longer the default, this is no longer the case. Under the current SMMs (applicable from 16 May onwards):
WFH is now the default;
All employees who are able to work from home must do so; and
Social gatherings in the workplace are not allowed.
As an employer, what must you do? How do you determine if an employee is able or not able to work from home?
As WFH is now the default, this means that employers again have to evaluate (a) the necessity for an employee to physically work in the office and (b) whether it is possible for an employee to work from home. Employers should as a starting point enable their employees to be able to work from home by providing them with the necessary tools to do so. Such tools could include a laptop and providing the employee with access to the company’s shared network drive from home.
The question most employers ask at this point is when is an employee considered to be unable to work from home? One illustration provided by the MOM is this – “their work can only be done with equipment that is confined to the workplace”. Other examples could include factory technicians as well as F&B cook or wait staff. Only if an employee is determined to be unable to work from home should they then be allowed to continue working on-site. Such determinations are naturally considered on a case by case basis and employers are advised to err on the side of caution and in cases of doubt, consider each individual case with reference to the two evaluation points of necessity and possibility.
It is also important for employers to know that a preference for employees to work in the office or that it would be more efficient for an employee to work in the office rather than at home are non-starter arguments and do not fulfil the condition of “necessity”. This is why the MOM has called for employers to do their part to abide by the prevailing restrictions in place in spite of the potential impact to business efficacy.
Employers should also be aware that the current measures in place take precedence over the previous 50% capacity allowance and allow employees to return to the office only if necessary.
Employers are nonetheless still encouraged to explore tech solutions and review work processes to allow more employees to WFH. The MOM has made clear that in determining whether or not there is a breach, the MOM will examine the business or operational reasons for the employees having to be in the office and inspectors will take into account the efforts put in by companies to implement WFH arrangements for their employees.
Should employers nonetheless determine that it is necessary for certain employees to return to the office, employers should continue with the following non-exhaustive practices (which the MOM had previously already required or encouraged employers to practice):
Staggering start times – this will prevent crowding of common areas such as lift lobbies but more importantly, allow employees who use public transport to avoid peak hour travel. The MOM has encouraged employers to ensure that where possible, at least half of all employees required to work in the office arrive at or after 10 AM and for physical meetings (if necessary) to be scheduled after 10 AM. Lunch breaks and other breaks should also be staggered accordingly;
Flexible working hours and arrangements – this could include an arrangement such as allowing an employee to go home for the day to continue working if no further work is required to be done in the office. This will reduce the time spent by employees in the workplace.
No cross-deployment between worksites – employees should by default only be confined to working in one worksite and if cross deployment cannot be avoided, additional safeguards must be taken to minimize the risk of cross infection between the cross-deployed employees and other employees.
Avoid organizing work-related events – work-related events are events not organized primarily for social interaction i.e. employee training vs office party. Work-related events which are allowed to be held must primarily involve employees or stakeholders and include internal seminars, corporate retreats, training and AGMs. All events must also adher e to the prevailing SMMs such as a cap of 50 pax per event, safe distancing of 1m between participants and no food and drinks allowed.
Employers are also required to continue with the existing SMMs in place with regard to safe distancing measures, hygiene practices and having in place monitoring plans to ensure compliance with SMMs.
Employers should also make it clear to employees that they are expected and required to personally comply with all prevailing laws, regulations and restrictions in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This is obviously required to protect all other employees from the reckless or willful behavior of certain errant employees who may choose to expose themselves to the risk of infection outside e.g. willfully refusing to wear masks in public places. Employees who fail to do so may then be subject to disciplinary action by the company, but this consequence must first be made clear to the employees in writing and acknowledged by them.
Moving forward, employers should prepare themselves for the possibility of further restrictions and tightening of SMMs down the road depending on the rise or fall of community cases. Employers are also well advised to adhere to the SMMs in place as the consequences of non-compliance may be dire – a stop work order may be issued against the company, in addition to a fine of up to $10,000 or imprisonment of up to 6 months or both. A repeat offence will result in harsher penalties.
We understand that even with the guidelines published by the MOM, clients may be unsure of how certain parts of the guidelines may be applicable to them and what may need to be done in order to adhere with the prevailing requirements. Our experienced team at TLC is able to assist – for enquiries, you may contact:
Disclaimer: This update is intended to provide general information only, and is not and shall not be regarded as legal advice (and consequently relied or acted on) or create any relationship between the reader and Titanium Law Chambers LLC. Should you require any legal advice regarding your specific circumstances, kindly consult a qualified legal practitioner. Copyright in this publication is owned by Titanium Law Chambers LLC and may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or in any way, in whole or in part, without the prior written approval of our firm.