On 7 May, the French Prime Minister announced the date chosen for the start of the “de-confinement” phase for France, namely 11 May 2020.
The lockdown, which started on 17 March, lasted almost 2 months during which some shops and businesses were closed, and the vast majority of companies operated on the basis of remote working. The lockdown weighed heavily on the national economy, with 12.2 million employees now covered by the short-time working scheme (i.e. six out of ten jobs in the private sector).
While public health has obviously been the government’s primary consideration in setting the plan to fight the pandemic, the de-confinement has been decided in order to revive the national economy.
De-confinement may nevertheless prove difficult for business leaders to manage, as the Government has recommended that initially (until 1 June 2020), homeworking should be maintained wherever possible. The return to work in companies’ premises must therefore be carried out in a prudent and measured way, while safeguarding employees’ health and safety.
The Government has made a number of tools available online to enable employers to familiarize themselves with the relevant guidelines (available in French only):
- A national protocol for the de-confinement of companies;
- Worksheets for categories of employment and sectors of business, published both by the Ministry of Labour and by professional organizations;
- A Q&A on homeworking and de-confinement.
For a clearer view, we set out a summary of the main actions to be taken in order to tackle de-confinement smoothly.
1. To avoid health and safety risks: maintain homeworking wherever possible
The French Prime Minister insisted on this point in his speech on 7 May: “Homeworking must be maintained wherever possible, at least for the next 3 weeks“. This point is reiterated in the national protocol for the de-confinement of companies, which states that “homeworking should avoid risk by removing the circumstances of exposure, and should be the rule whenever it can be implemented“.
On 9 May 2020, the Government also published a set of questions and answers on homeworking, specifying the methods by which it must be organised (choice of homeworking days, working hours, equipment to be provided, remuneration, etc.).
In the coming weeks, employers will have to negotiate the posts for which they consider the physical presence of employees in the work premises to be indispensable. According to the Government’s guidelines, de-confinement must be very gradual, so it is not conceivable to ask employees to return to work on a massive scale in the company’s premises (particularly in view of the social distancing measures required).
In practice, and purely from a human resources point of view, a long-lasting homeworking situation may lead to employees feeling distanced from the company, in addition to the fact that many of them have had to juggle their professional and personal/family obligations since the beginning of the lockdown. It is therefore advisable to put tools in place to maintain the link with the company (virtual meetings, town halls, etc.), or even psychological assistance schemes for employees who feel the need for it. Homeworking triggers specific risks (particularly psychosocial) that need to be taken into account in order to limit its impact.
2. Risk assessment
Risk assessment is part of the general and permanent obligations of employers, and de-confinement cannot be contemplated without a careful assessment of the risks in terms of health and safety of employees in the work premises.
Employers must update the single risk assessment document, which must accurately list the risks induced by COVID-19 (not only the purely physical risks, but also the psychosocial risks). Any prevention plans must also be reviewed, if necessary.
In this respect, French employers must involve and ask for the support of both employee representative bodies and occupational health services.
3. Implement protective measures for employees
Protective measures for employees are mainly the following:
3.1 Barrier measures and physical distancing measures
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government has been advocating the respect of barrier actions (regular hand washing with soap and water or with a hydro-alcoholic solution, coughing and sneezing into one’s elbow, physical distancing, disinfection of objects and surfaces, etc.).
These actions have been further detailed in the national protocol for the de-confinement of companies published by the Government, which specifies that in order to maintain a maximum number of people simultaneously within a covered space, each person must have a working space of at least 4 square metres, thus considerably reducing the possibility for companies operating through open spaces to reopen their doors entirely to their employees. Companies must therefore calculate, on the basis of the surface area actually available for occupants, the maximum number of employees who can work on site and strictly comply with the maximum set by the Government.
As a result of these measures, the work space must be reconsidered and reorganized, and companies must set up special flow management systems (direction of traffic, conditions of use of space and equipment). Companies that have to involve third parties on the premises must be particularly vigilant on these points.
3.2 Protective devices
Protective devices are no substitute for barrier and physical distancing measures. If, despite the implementation of all other applicable measures, compliance with the minimum physical distance cannot be guaranteed, a mask must be worn. In other cases, masks may be worn, but are not mandatory. French employers may then decide to ask their employees to wear masks within the company, but this cannot be required from employees.
Except for healthcare professionals, the employer can provide FFP1 masks or alternative masks for non-health use, known as “general public” masks, developed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
3.3 Cleaning and disinfection
The French Government set precise rules in the national de-confinement protocol relating to the cleaning and disinfection of surfaces and objects which, depending on the circumstances, sets out the frequency of these cleaning and disinfection operations and the products to be used.
3.4 Screening / treatment of cases of employees showing symptoms of COVID-19
Screening campaigns organised by companies for their employees are not allowed. Temperature monitoring is not recommended and employees are entitled to refuse it. If an employer, faced with such refusal, does not allow the employee to take up his or her position, it may be required to pay the employee their equivalent remuneration for the lost working day.
On the other hand, the national de-confinement protocol includes a specific protocol for the management of a symptomatic person which specifies that companies must undertake the following actions:
- isolate the person in a dedicated room and simultaneously apply barrier actions (minimum distance and wearing of a mask if possible);
- ask for support from the dedicated healthcare professional in the establishment and provide him/her with a mask before the intervention;
- in the absence of signs of seriousness, contact the occupational health physician or ask the person to contact his or her GP for medical advice. If it is confirmed there are no signs of seriousness, organise his or her return home avoiding public transportation;
- in the event of signs of seriousness (e.g. respiratory distress), call the French State ER services;
- after taking care of the person, contact occupational health services and follow their instructions, including regarding the cleaning of the workstation and the follow up on employees who may have been in contact with the symptomatic employee;
- if the COVID-19 case is confirmed, the identification and handling of contacts will be organised by the authorities in the context of contact-tracing operations.
Further to claims raised by unions, a number of large companies based or operating in France notably Amazon, Carrefour, La Poste) have been ordered to establish prevention plans in France or to significantly reduce their activities (. Companies operating in France should learn from these experiences and apply the instructions of the Government to the letter, doing everything possible to ensure the protection of the health and safety of employees. The French Government has encouraged companies to take rapid and concrete action, in particular by reducing the maximum timeframe for the consultation with employee representative bodies on employer decisions aimed at dealing with the economic, financial and social consequences of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.