1. What options do employers have and/or what are you seeing in terms of re-opening the workplace e.g. phased returns, rotating shifts, staggered working hours, etc.?
Different options are recommended by the social partners (i.e. the national employer and employee representatives in Belgium) in their general guide (available in French and in Dutch). Remote working remains the recommended mode of working. Options include:
- introducing temporary work schemes, for instance to ensure the workers take their break at different moments, or work in alternate shifts, so the number of workers present at the same time remains limited;
- introducing gliding work schemes (allowing the workers to start or end their working day within a certain time frame to avoid having too many workers arrive at the same time); and
- temporary unemployment for part of the workforce: if there would for instance only be half the normal work, it is possible to keep half the workforce at home in temporary unemployment, and only have the other half of the workforce present at work.
The number of overtime hours allowed in the critical industries has been increased.
The specific options will be determined on a case-by-case basis at company level, under the procedure for implementing prevention measures (generally a first draft risk analysis proposed by the internal service for prevention and protection at work, a first review by the employer, then a discussion within the committee for prevention and protection at work, and finally the decision by the employer)..
2. Does an employer have to give notice to employees to return to the workplace?
There is no fixed notice to be given to workers. For workers who were put on temporary unemployment for a set period (e.g. one month), the employer cannot unilaterally cancel the temporary unemployment and oblige the worker to return earlier than the period that was communicated by the employer.
As the employer must ensure workers are given appropriate instructions about health and safety, there is a duty to notify workers of the prevention measures introduced regarding COVID-19.
3. Is an employer obliged to consult with employees/representatives about the return to work process?
Social dialogue at all levels plays a central and crucial role. The representative bodies at the employer, such as the Committee for Prevention and Protection at Work (CPPW) and the trade union delegation (and sometimes the works council) must be involved in the choice and implementation of the measures, given that, according to the law:
- the works council must be informed of any change about the work organisation and the employment conditions;
- the trade union delegation must be informed of any change that could affect collective work conditions; and
- the CPPW must be informed and consulted on all matters concerning the wellbeing of employees.
Employers must consult the internal prevention advisor and external prevention advisors when preparing a sound health and safety policy that takes account the risks of COVID-19 infection at work.
4. Are there any requirements or recommendations for employees to wear or employers to provide masks or other protective equipment in the workplace?
Yes. The general guide drawn up by the social partners, as mentioned under question 1, contains recommendations to provide for collective and individual equipment:
- Collective: for example, separation between offices, glass walls, markings and bins.
- Individual: provision of disinfectant gel if there is no possibility to wash the hands, using gloves or masks.
- Where possible, collective measures should be preferred over individual ones. Masks are thus only recommended if social distancing is not possible. The main rule remains that social distancing should be respected to the extent possible.
5. When can business travel resume and what are the key considerations for employers?
Nonessential trips to or from Belgium remain prohibited, whether business or private travel. However, as of 15 June 2020, travelling to other countries of the EU (including the UK) or the Schengen area, is allowed, both for professional and private travelling. When it comes to international travelling, it could nevertheless be that the other countries involved still impose restrictions, making the trip to or from Belgium impossible
There is no prohibition on business travelling within Belgium, but teleworking remains recommended, so physical meetings should wherever possible be replaced by virtual meetings.
If physical meetings take place on the employer's premises, the employer should ensure that social distancing is respected, or if this is not possible (which is unlikely to be the case), the employer must ensure an equivalent level of protection by other means.
This must be part of the risk analysis conducted by the employer – for example, considering whether transparent walls could be installed in meeting rooms, or how frequently meeting rooms should be disinfected.
Face marks are mandatory on public transport, so the employer must provide these to employees who need to use public transport in connection with their duties (e.g. getting to and from the workplace).
6. If schools remain closed, can working parents continue to work from home?
Yes, remote working (e.g. telework) remains recommended wherever possible.
While schools are allowed to open as of 18 May 2020, most schools opened only partially (for instance by opening only for a part of the normal hours and alternating the groups of children, so the number of persons present in a school at the same time is limited).
Working parents can make use of the existing forms of leave, notably time credit leave and parental leave.
The Federal government also introduced a temporarily additional parental leave for single parents with young children at home (called corona parental leave). This form of leave applies for the moment only up to 30 June 2020, but it may be extended.