29 April 2020

Art in the time of Coronavirus: Employment considerations for the art market

The art industry, like most other industries, is not immune to the effects of the coronavirus. It is important for galleries, dealers, museums, auction houses, and other art businesses to consider the employment issues arising as a result of the pandemic. This is no easy task, especially when guidance and regulations are being introduced and changed at unprecedented speed.

Remote working

Whilst the art world is normally considered a ‘people’ industry, employers in the sector should ensure that wherever possible, staff work from home in order to comply with the government’s social distancing rules. Hopefully, for most staff in the sector, this will be achievable (on a temporary basis at least), especially with the growing trend to move art on-line in response to the ‘lock-down’.

Employers need to remember that they still have health and safety obligations towards their home-working staff; they should therefore, carry out appropriate risk assessments in relation to those staff members.

Non-remote working

There will, however, be limited roles which cannot be performed from home and require some members of staff to be in the workplace (for example, security services). Where staff are asked to come to work, it is important that employers take all reasonable steps to mitigate any risk (such as changing their working hours so they travel at non-peak times and providing appropriate protective equipment).

Sickness absence

It is also likely that employers in the art industry will see an increase in the number of staff absences due to sickness and the need to self-isolate as a result of the pandemic. Helpfully, for smaller businesses (i.e. those employing fewer than 250 employees), such as private galleries, the government has amended the statutory sick pay rules so that, under the Government’s Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme, the employer can claim back statutory payments which are paid for the first 14 days of sickness.

In addition, employers who have contractual sick pay policies should consider those and assess how and when they apply to staff who are sick or self-isolating.

Annual leave

Annual leave is another issue: given staff might be unable to take leave due to the pandemic, the government has announced that workers will be allowed to carry over some of their annual leave for up to two years. We are waiting for further details of the scheme to be released, but our separate article summarising these changes can be accessed here.

As art businesses will want to start opening and trading (to the extent possible) as soon as possible after the ‘lock-down’ has been lifted, they might want to start thinking about putting in place new rules to prevent staff all taking their leave straight away to help ensure that there are no staff shortages.

Other HR issues

Other HR issues, such as staff who are struggling to work whilst now looking after (and home schooling) their children and those who refuse to attend work (where required to do so) because of their concerns about contracting coronavirus, are likely to arise. This is an unprecedented time and employers should be sympathetic to concerns and listen to staff to ensure that matters are dealt with fairly and proportionately to help avoid employment-related claims.

Financial effects and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

Unfortunately, we know that coronavirus is having a big impact on the balance sheet. Galleries cannot open to the public, auctions in person can no longer take place, and deals are slowing. As such, we are seeing many employers in the sector take steps to reduce staff costs, whether this be through salary cuts, reduced hours or making redundancies.

The government has launched the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme which is designed to keep people in work. Under the scheme, employers can ‘furlough’ staff (i.e. put them on leave of absence) and recover 80% of their salary costs (up to a maximum of £2,500 per person per month); the hope being, that once the pandemic is over, there will be a skilled and trained workforce ready to jump back into action. Helpfully, the scheme also allows employers to furlough staff on atypical working arrangement (such as zero-hour contracts) which can be commonplace for those working in the art industry. We have prepared a detail Q&A on the scheme which can be accessed here.

The future

It is clear that it will take a while before life as we knew it returns. Even when the ‘lock-down’ is released, we expect numerous social distancing measures to be put in place. Now is the time for employers to start to think about the steps that they will take in preparation for this. Whilst this will ultimately be led by government guidance, employers should start to think creatively about how their workforce could return (for example, extending the working week or rotating teams of staff, so fewer people are in the workplace at any time).

The pandemic is certainly raising numerous issues which employers in the art world need to grapple with. Our team, who regularly advises businesses in the industry, are ready to help employers navigate these often choppy seas. Please contact, Joe Beeston, Senior Employment Associate in our Employment team for further information.

Disclaimer

The current global crisis is evolving rapidly, and the rules and guidance for individuals, companies and other entities to manage its implications are similarly fast moving. Notes such as this may be out of date almost as soon as they are published. If you have any questions prompted by this article or on any other matter relevant to you, please get in touch with your usual contact at Forsters.

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