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Coronavirus and farming: Advice for agricultural employers

Mark Chatterton | 6 April 2020

While working away from the crowds in the countryside may feel like a safer environment that’s less exposed to the threat of coronavirus than most, agricultural businesses face some unique challenges during this crisis.

Even before coronavirus began to cause difficulties in the UK, farms were facing a tough environment. Arable farms in particular were working towards uncertain harvests following the wet conditions in autumn and winter which delayed or prevented drilling. While many spring crops have now been drilled, farms were facing limited cash flow and this alone was threatening to reduce work for contractors this summer. Now, these problems have been compounded with the spread of coronavirus, which is threatening even more jobs as well as public health.

Crucially, unlike many other sectors of the British economy, there are very few roles in agriculture which can be carried out through remote working and many jobs require people to be physically present on site. This can make it difficult for employers who need to allow team members to isolate, who become unwell or are otherwise unable to work as a result of the pandemic.

Whether your employees are having to self-isolate, if they’re in lockdown or stranded overseas, work will need to be carried out and obligations must be met, so how can employers and farm managers manage these responsibilities and keep their farm profitable?

Throughout everything, some of the most important bits of advice for farm managers and owners are:

  • To communicate clearly with your workers so that they know what your position is across a range of situations
  • To check the small print in employment contracts and understand your obligations regarding leave, holidays and the right to be paid during sickness or absence
  • To avoid discrimination, whether it’s between directly employed workers and agency workers, young or old employees and those with or without medical conditions which make them vulnerable
  • To allow yourself to be flexible and change your approach should the situation change, rather than committing to open-ended discretionary payments which may not be sustainable
  • Think long term and avoid upsetting people who you’ll later need to rely on

Below are some of the most important and pressing issues and considerations with which many farm owners will have to contend in the coming weeks and months when it comes to their employees and coronavirus.

Sick pay for employees who self-isolate as a precautionary measure

If a member of your workforce has been advised to self quarantine by a medical professional or if official guidance is for them to be isolated, then they should be entitled to statutory sick pay from day one.

Precautionary isolation can be a little complicated in employment contracts as it’s unlikely to be explicitly covered and it may not fall under the general definition of sickness. Therefore, you should check to see if this is something they’re entitled to as contracts can vary. 

Either way, you may decide to go above and beyond the terms of your contract and also grant them contractual sick pay at your discretion. Doing this will certainly help you to maintain a good relationship with your employee and with the rest of your workforce and it would undoubtedly support them, however, you will need to take care not to exercise such discretion in a way which could be discriminatory, so you may need to grant the same leniency if other members of your workforce are made to self-isolate.

Seasonal workers who are unable to work due to illness.

If you directly employ seasonal workers on a piece-work basis, you’ll need to check their employment contract to determine whether they’re eligible for contractual sick pay. Again, you may decide to pay this regardless of their eligibility at your discretion, but you must take care not to be discriminatory in who you decide to grant this to.

As an alternative to granting them discretionary sick pay, either of you may decide to offer to cover some or all of their absence as part of their paid leave entitlement. You cannot force an employee to take paid leave, unless it is stipulated in their contract, but this could be an acceptable compromise if they’re willing to agree.

If their illness is related to coronavirus, they will be entitled to statutory sick pay from day one, provided they meet the minimum weekly pay threshold.

Non-UK nationals who are unable to return to the UK

If you employ any non-British citizens who are unable to return to the UK because of a travel ban imposed in their home country, they are not entitled to statutory sick pay if they are not unwell or self-isolating.

Also, subject to any special provisions in their employment contract and unless remote working is an option, they won’t be entitled to be paid if they cannot attend work, even though it is through no fault of their own.

This could be very difficult for the employee, so you may want to discuss the possibility of them taking annual leave to cover this enforced absence, but, again, you cannot ordinarily force employees to do so.

If your business can afford to, it may be better for the sake of your long-term working relationship to make a discretionary payment to cover some or all of their period of absence. This could be in the form of some kind of loan to be repaid over a period in future upon their return, or you could simply agree to continue paying their wage or salary.

Should the individual fall ill or was made to self-isolate however, then they would be entitled to statutory sick pay which they would have to claim in their own country.

Accommodation for seasonal workers who are unable to work

Many farms which rely on seasonal workers provide living space as part of their employment contract. Should any of these workers be unable to work, you will still need to meet this responsibility. If they pay towards this accommodation, you can continue to charge them for this, and you will generally have to pay for any additional costs from the additional electricity, water or gas they may use as a result, unless you have separately agreed a right to charge additional amounts.

If the absence becomes long term, however, you may consider terminating the contract, but this would be a significant step to take which may damage your reputation and relationship with other employees. This would also be contrary to the Prime Minister’s request for companies to look after their team members and stick by their employees, so you should think carefully about whether this would be something you’re comfortable with.

Self isolation in shared accommodation units

Things could become more problematic for employers in situations where you have seasonal workers living in shared accommodation with their colleagues. If one of them is advised to self-isolate because they are either showing symptoms, then the current advice is for everyone in that “household” to self isolate for 14 days.

This may be difficult, particularly if multiple workers share the same accommodation unit, but you have a duty of care towards all of your workers - those who are affected and those who aren’t, so you should follow the medical guidance to prevent others from catching the virus.

Agency staff who don’t turn up for work

Many farms hire seasonal or temporary team members through an agency. This means that the agency is their employer and it is their responsibility to pay statutory sick pay, contractual pay or holiday pay in line with their employment rights and contracts.

If agency staff do not turn up for work, then you should take the issue up with the agency, but you have to treat agency staff in the same way as the people you directly employ, without discrimination. This means that if you provide additional washing facilities or hand sanitiser to those you directly employ, you should offer the same to agency staff and if you decide to pay discretionary sick leave, pay or bonuses to one group, you must do the same with the other.

Agricultural Wages Order contracts

If your workers were employed under contracts governed by the Agricultural Wages Order (AWO) and you have continued to treat their employment as governed by AWO, then they may have a right to Agricultural Sick Pay (ASP), which could be payable for up to six months depending on their length of service, and you won’t be able to reclaim this ASP. Technically, workers are required to present a doctor’s certificate if they are ill for more than eight days, but for coronavirus, these should now be available online rather than from visiting a doctor in person. 

While AWO contracted employees would still be able to receive statutory sick pay if they are advised to self-isolate as a precaution (and you may be able to reclaim this if you’re a small employer), they are unlikely to be entitled to ASP.

Farms with long term loans to repay

We are advising many farm businesses with long term loans to consider approaching their banks to request a capital repayment holiday. These are looked upon quite favourably by banks and it can be helpful as a means of reducing immediate costs.

Communication with the banks is essential for this. Once a repayment holiday is requested, some banks have sent a standard form with six questions asking how the business is impacted, what plans management has and what alternative options are available, etc. They also request a financial forecast with comments on the assumptions used.

Duncan & Toplis can support farming businesses in providing these forecasts and communicating with banks to help you secure the capital repayment holiday.

Support for self-employed workers

Self-employed individuals, including members of partnerships, who have lost income due to coronavirus can be eligible for the Self-employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS).

This scheme will allow you to claim a taxable grant worth 80% of your trading profits up to a maximum of £2,500 per month for the next three months. This period can be extended if needed and details of how to claim a grant through the scheme can be found here. The grant is based on your average profits for the last three tax years and is paid directly into your bank account in one instalment.

However, the scheme is not yet open for applications. HMRC will contact individuals who are eligible and invite applications online.

To be eligible, you must have submitted your income tax self-assessment return for the 2018-19 tax year and have traded in the 2019-20 tax year. You must also be either trading when you apply for the grant or you would be trading if it weren’t for COVID-19 and you must intend to continue trading in the 2020-21 tax year. Individuals are also expected to have lost trading profits due to COVID-19 and your self-employed trading profits must also be less than £50,000 and more than half of your income must come from self-employment.

An alternative scheme which may benefit you if you’re a director of your own company and paid through PAYE is the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, whereby you can be ‘furloughed’ and paid 80% of your wages, up to the same threshold.

The situation regarding employment rights, sick pay and leave is regularly changing, but for all farms, it’s a critical subject to get right.  For an updated list of all of the support for businesses during coronavirus, please click here, and please contact our team if you require any further help or advice.

Please note: this article was last updated on Monday 06 April 2020 and any and all information may be subject to change. The information which is summarised herein does not constitute professional advice and is general in nature. 

Please contact our team for further detail of how these initiatives could help you and your business.


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