The Coronavirus and your employees

The Coronavirus and your employees

Nozipho Mvulane

Coronavirus in South Africa

The first confirmed case of the coronavirus (COVID-19) was confirmed in South Africa on 5 March 2020. As of the 6 March 2020, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the coronavirus had approximately:

  • At least 93,000 reported cases globally; and
  • At least 3,100 reported deaths globally.

The symptoms

Common signs and symptoms of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

Sick leave

Where an employee has presented with symptoms that may closely resemble the coronavirus, it is advisable that they take sick leave. The minimum standard for sick leave is 6 weeks during every 36-month sick leave cycle in terms of section 22 of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act 75 of 1997 (BCEA). This amounts to 30 days every 3-year cycle.

The employer may refuse to pay sick leave if the employee has been absent for more than two consecutive days or on more than two occasions during an eight-week period (see section 23 of the BCEA) unless the employee produces a medical certificate issued and signed by a medical practitioner.

Where an employee has exhausted their sick in their respective 3-year cycle, they may apply for annual leave. Section 20 of the BCEA provides, as a general rule, that an employee is entitled to 21 consecutive days’ leave during a 12-month annual leave cycle.

Both sick leave and annual leave are paid by the employer.

Family responsibility leave

Where an employee suspects that an immediate family member, may have symptoms that closely resemble the coronavirus, they may be able to take family responsibility leave. Section 27 of the BCEA makes provision for family responsibility leave. This leave may only be taken in the case of certain specific events and an employer may require reasonable proof of the event having taken place. One may argue that the coronavirus may be one such specific event that would warrant family responsibility leave.

Family responsibility leave has certain conditions attached to it in terms of which relative may entitle an employee to take leave in terms of family responsibility. However, employers need to be sympathetic to different cultures, traditions and beliefs and to make reasonable accommodation for this when deciding whether or not to grant family responsibility leave in terms of relationship proximity.

Unpaid leave

It is common for an employee who becomes ill or who is injured to take excessive amounts of sick leave. However, an employee’s statutory and/or contractual sick leave is limited to 30 days in 3-year cycle. Once exhausted, it will become problematic for the employee.

There is no legal obligation imposed upon an employer to grant an employee unpaid leave and this is left at the sole discretion of an employer. Employers should in the appropriate circumstances, seriously consider granting an employee unpaid leave if he or she is ill.

If unpaid leave is granted, the contract of employment is not suspended nor is it terminated, the contract of employment will continue but the employee will not be paid his wage or salary. If an employee is granted unpaid leave, an employer may not permanently appoint a replacement in the employee’s position. The employer may, however, temporarily appoint an employee to perform the incapacitated employee’s duties until such time as that employee has recovered and is well enough to return to work.

Alternative arrangements – working from home

Where it is possible for businesses to do so, they may encourage their staff to work from home. This is not the same as taking leave. The employee will be expected to work a full day as per usual, however instead of going into the workplace to do so, they would be performing their functions from home.

It is also worth noting, that depending on the resources that an employee would require, they may not be able to work to their full capacity.

Do I have to supply masks in my workplace

Employers may feel the need to start providing masks, sanitizers etc in the workplace in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. This may be especially so where a large segment of employee population is immunocompromised. However, good hygiene practices in the workplace may be enough. Where there is no express provisions relating to general health and safety legislation (such as General Safety Regulations – GNR 1031 of 30 May 1986 found under Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993), it may not be necessary for employers to provide masks and sanitizers to their employees.

However, this is may be industry specific and depending on what type of work is being carried out, may be necessary for employers to take extra health and safety precautions against the spread and infection of the coronavirus on their employees.

Standard recommendations to prevent infection

Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread (from WHO) include:

  • regular hand washing;
  • covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing;
  • thoroughly cooking meat and eggs;
  • avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.

For any further information, please feel free to contact us at

The South African Department of Health’s Corona Virus Outbreak 24-Hour Hotline Number is 08 000 29999 or you may visit

Article Disclaimer

This article is not intended to provide legal advice. This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE).

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