The Department of Employment and Labour has recently provided much-needed guidance in respect of questions which employers have been grappling with since President Ramaphosa’s declaration of a National State of Disaster on Sunday, 15 March 2020. Most of these questions relate to employees’ rights who are required to self-quarantine, sick leave and annual leave entitlements and under which conditions would employees have access to their UIF benefits.

Under normal conditions, section 20(1)(a) of the Unemployment Insurance Act 63 of 2001 (UIF Act) outlines a contributor’s right to illness benefits. A contributor is entitled to illness benefits if “the contributor is unable to perform work on account of illness”. This is, however, subject to the exclusion when a contributor is entitled to other unemployment benefits.

The benefit to which a contributor is ordinarily entitled to is calculated in accordance with Schedule 2 of the UIF Act.

Section 19 of the UIF Act states that the period of the illness is determined from the date the contributor ceases to work as a result of the illness, and is ordinarily pre-empted by a medical certificate.

However, these are no-ordinary times. Given the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa, scenarios have emerged which are not necessarily contemplated by the UIF Act.

The Minister of Employment and Labour, Mr Thulas Nxesi, announced on 17 March 2020 that a period of reprieve will be considered in order for companies not to contribute to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). He said the Funds Temporary Employer/ Employee Relief Scheme will be used to avoid workers being laid off.

Minister Nxesi stated that the following measures are being considered in light of the COVID19 pandemic:

  • Companies who decide to close for a short period – Short Term UIF benefits will be available to employees
  • Companies who contemplate a short term shut down – Companies contemplating a short term shut down must notify the Department who will dispatch a team to visit these companies to provide assistance with the processing of UIF claims
  • Employees who must subject themselves to be self-quarantined for 14 days – Such leave will be recognised as ‘special leave’ and employees will be permitted to apply for UIF benefits which will be paid on condition that the reason for the quarantine meets the necessary requirements
  • Employees who are required to be quarantined for periods longer than 14 days as a result of having travelled or been in contact with an infected person Such a leave will be recognised as ‘special leave’ and employees will be eligible to apply for unemployment insurance benefits

The Minister urged employers to conduct a health and safety risk assessment in consultation with its employees, whilst ensuring that measures are put in place to ensure a healthy workplace in terms of its health and safety obligations such as the provision of the necessary protective equipment and put in place systems to deal with the outbreak, as well as including all mitigating measures that are to be put in place until the outbreak has been dealt with.

This is a developing issue as we are still to receive further detail on Government’s considerations in this respect and when this will become effective.