Last reviewed 23 December 2020

This article forms part of this year’s Christmas series, being published on the site until the end of December.

For employers, December won't just mark the Christmas period but the beginning of a series of legal changes and stringent rules. 2020 has been a year for the history books, and so will the following.

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a brand new tier 4 to apply to some parts of England. First Minister Mark Drakeford brought forward tougher restrictions in Wales, and his counterpart in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, confirmed extra closures from Boxing Day. Full details are in our new item — GB Governments introduce tougher rules now and at Christmas.

  • The Brexit transition period will end on 31 December 2020 and, from 1 January 2021, new immigration laws will be introduced, including the updated points-based immigration system, as well as some other crucial developments.

Opeyemi Ogundeji, researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, explores these below.

The Job Retention Scheme has been extended

31 October 2020 was scheduled to bring an end to the Job Retention Scheme; however, employers have a further six months from October before the scheme will end. The Chancellor has extended the scheme until the end of April 2021 and is allowing eligible employers to claim 80% of staff wages up to a maximum of £2500 per month. Employers may now be able to leave redundancy worries aside and concentrate on recovering from the impact of the virus.

Initially, the Chancellor extended the scheme until March 2021 but later announced on 17 December 2020 that it would be extended further into April. Some weeks after the March extension was announced at the end of October 2020, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) called for the Chancellor to extend the scheme to the end of June 2021 to protect jobs. The CIPD went further to say that it is crucial that the Government set out a long-term plan to protect jobs beyond (the initial deadline of) March, to help businesses plan with confidence and to minimise the need to make more redundancies against an uncertain backdrop through spring and early summer.

Seeing how helpful the scheme has been up to this point, employers will likely be in support of this push from the CIPD. However, if the short notice nature of the announcement to extend the scheme until March 2021 is anything to go by (and the extension until April 2021 ending having been so unexpected), it may be another couple of months before the Government provides a response to the call for further extension until June 2021, if at all. For now, employers can only prepare for change to occur at any time, continue to furlough staff and await further guidance on what will come next.

Homeworking advice in England remains

The Government has urged employers in England to keep staff who can work from home doing so over the winter, despite the national lockdown having come to an end on 2 December. While not all employers, or staff, will agree with this advice, it may just be the most effective way to help reduce the spread of the virus.

On the other hand, research by the University of Exeter and Leicester Business School has shown that the pandemic and working from home measures have resulted in loneliness (17% of surveyed people). Domestic abuse and mental health issues among staff have also been exasperated according to the Office for National Statistics. They have revealed that, during the lockdown in March, a fifth of crimes reported in England and Wales involved domestic abuse.

This is why it is crucial that employers maintain a line of communication with their staff and offer them support, for example through the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

There certainly is cause for optimism as we head into 2021, with the hopeful news of a vaccine suggesting that normal life may be able to return at some point during this year. But what does this mean for homeworking? Commentary from the UK Government has been inconsistent on this point, with some ministers suggesting that homeworking will be more widespread, and even more protected in law, and others saying that the impact on local economies means it should be discouraged.

For now, employers must keep up with the latest expectations placed upon them by coronavirus restrictions and facilitate homeworking as much as is possible. The Government accept that not all businesses will be able to let staff work remotely, and there is some flexibility on people coming into work for certain reasons such as mental health, but organisations would be wise to be able to clearly outline why staff are being asked into the workplace.

National living wage is increasing

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced on 25 November that the National Living Wage (NLW) will increase by 2.2% to £8.91 per hour from April 2021. Going further, the Government has also decreased the age threshold from ages 25 and over to 23 and over.

Employers should therefore keep in mind that this Christmas period should be taken advantage of as a period of potential calm before the storm — before employers and HR professionals begin sifting through staff contracts, ready to amend them accordingly (where applicable).

The other minimum wage rates will also increase, namely for employees aged over the compulsory school age (CSA) up to age 22, as well as apprentices — as follows:

  • 21–22 = £8.36

  • 18–20 = £6.56

  • Over CSA — 17 = £4.62

  • Apprentice = £4.30.

Takeaway

To avoid sounding grinch-like, and while it is true that employers should keep all this in mind, they can still put a cheerful spin on what has otherwise been a stressful year — in any way they can.