Questions on coronavirus and occupational safety and health

Coronavirus - Frequently asked questions

The Occupational Safety and Health Authorities advise employers and employees on issues related to employment relationship and occupational safety. In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration monitors that the employer complies with regulations related to employment relationship and occupational safety.
 
Guidance on the coronavirus epidemic has been collected under these Frequently Asked Questions. If you cannot find the answer here, please call the Telephone Service of the OSH authorities.
 
The task of the Occupational Safety and Health Authorities is the responsibility of the Divisions for Occupational Safety and Health of the Regional State Administrative Agencies. Other divisions of the Regional State Administrative Agencies include issues related to social administration and health care, educational institutions, early childhood education, and public events, for example. Frequently asked questions related to them can be found on this Finnish site of the Regional State Administrative Agency.
 

Lay-off

The ability of an employer to provide work is reduced by the coronavirus and the Emergency Powers Act. Can an employer lay off an employee?

Yes, if the economic and production criteria of the Employment Contracts Act are met.

Under current law (19 March), when carrying out a lay-off, a notice period of 14 days before the start of the lay-off pursuant to the Employment Contracts Act or a notice period pursuant to the collective agreement applicable in the employment relationship must be taken into account. During this lay-off notice period, the employer still has to pay the salary. Workplaces with more than 20 employees must also follow the procedures for lay-offs set out in the Co-operation Act. If you have any questions about co-operation procedures, please contact the Cooperation Ombudsman. See the contact details at https://tem.fi/en/cooperation-ombudsman.

On 18 March, labour market organizations made a proposal to the Finnish Government on legislative changes related to lay-offs, among others; therefore, lay-off regulations are likely to change quickly. It is a good idea to check the up-to-date information on any new provisions in the collective agreements on the websites of the workers' and employers' organizations.
 

Can an employer agree with an employee on the lay-off beginning immediately?

No, unless the labour market organizations have agreed so. 

Currently (19 March), the lay-off notice period laid down in the Employment Contracts Act can only be agreed otherwise in collective agreements. Thus, by law, such deviation from the lay-off notice period cannot be otherwise agreed by a contract between the employer and the employee. The purpose of the notice period is to secure the employee's salary during this notice period. Adherence to the notice periods under the Employment Contracts Act or the collective agreement for the part of a lay-off has an effect on when the employee's entitlement to an unemployment benefit begins for the lay-off period. More information on the right to unemployment benefit during lay-offs can be found on the TE Services website.

On 18 March, labour market organizations made a proposal to the Finnish Government on legislative changes related to lay-offs, among others; therefore, lay-off regulations are likely to change quickly. It is a good idea to check the up-to-date information on any new provisions in the collective agreements on the websites of the workers' and employers' organizations. 


I received a lay-off notice with a notification period of 14 days. Now the employer is offering a new lay-off notice, where the lay-off already starts in 5 days. Is this right?

It depends on which sector you are working in. In some sectors, the lay-off notification period was shortened in the collective agreements due to the coronavirus situation. In that case, the employer can shorten the notification period. You can find up-to-date information on your own sector on the websites of the employers’ and employees’ associations.

If your sector does not have a collective agreement, the notification period will only change after the Collective Agreements Act has been changed accordingly. At the moment, it is not known exactly when the changes will enter into force. We will update this answer after the law has changed.


Can an employer lay off a fixed-term worker?

In principle, no. A fixed-term worker may be laid off only if he/she acts as a replacement for an employee who could be laid off by the employer. 

On 18 March, labour market organizations made a proposal to the Finnish Government on a legislative change that would also allow fixed-term workers to be laid off. It is a good idea to check the up-to-date information on the websites of the workers' and employers' organizations.

Emergency Powers Act

In which jobs can an employer, due to the coronavirus, deviate from the provisions of the Employment Contracts Act, the Annual Holiday Act, and the Finnish Working Hours Act?

Temporary exemptions provided by the Government apply to health care and social administration, rescue services, emergency response, and the police. Exceptional arrangements apply to working time and annual leave as well as notice period in the event of an employee's resignation. However, the extension of the period of notice does not apply to the police service.

The employer may, if necessary, suspend or postpone an employee's leave. In addition, the employer may derogate from the obligation to obtain an employee's consent to work overtime, and from the provisions on rest period. The employer may also extend the period of notice for an employee to four months if the employer is threatened by a labour shortage due to the virus epidemic. If the employer makes use of these derogations, special attention must be paid to the health and occupational safety of workers. Exceptions must be temporary.

Emergency work

Can workers be called for emergency work on the basis of the corona epidemic? 

Only if the conditions for emergency work are met. Under the Finnish Working Hours Act, having the staff perform emergency work requires an unexpected event that interferes or seriously threatens to interfere with normal operations or poses a threat to life, health or property. The mere fact that a general state of emergency and a current epidemic may lead to these consequences is not sufficient to justify emergency work. The Government has issued a decree which states that there is no need to perform emergency work in sectors where the provisions of rest periods, overtime, or maximum working hours by the Finnish Working Hours Act are not applied during a state of emergency.
 
The employer shall use the means at their disposal to prepare for the prevailing conditions. If simultaneous sick leaves or other unexpected circumstances threaten to result in the aforementioned consequences, the conditions for emergency work may be fulfilled. The epidemic may limit the employer's ability to prepare and therefore, emergency work may be considered more likely than usual.
 
If the employer decides to have their employees perform emergency work, this must be reported to the Division for Occupational Safety and Health of the Regional State Administrative Agency of the place of employment; see contact details here. The report must be accompanied by a statement from the shop steward or other employees' representative.
 
For guidance on having employees perform emergency work, see Emergency work.

Childcare

Does an employee have the right to be paid if he/she has to stay home to care for a child in quarantine or who has fallen ill with the coronavirus?

It depends on what your industry’s collective agreement has agreed on the matter.

If your child has been ordered to stay in quarantine or in a quarantine-like environment because of, for example, possibly having been exposed to the virus, your absence from work is principally unpaid as referred to in the Employment Contracts Act. Collective agreements may have other decrees regarding this, so check the matter in the collective agreement applicable to your employment relationship. If possible, you can agree to work remotely, which means you are entitled to salary. However, you may be entitled to a sickness allowance on account of an infectious disease if your child is under 16 years old and you are prohibited from doing your work because of the quarantine. More information on the sickness allowance on account of an infectious disease is available on Kela’s website.

If your child falls ill, you may be absent for up to four working days at a time in order to care for a child under ten years of age. However, according to the Employment Contracts Act, this is an unpaid absence. Most collective agreements have decrees that deviate from this, so check whether the absence is paid or unpaid from the collective agreement applicable to your employment relationship. Some collective agreements have also raised the age limit to 12 years. If you and your employer have agreed that you will be working remotely during this time, you have the right to salary for the completed working hours.

Summer leave

Can an employer order an employee to take next summer’s holidays already now?

No. However, the employee and the employer may agree on taking the holiday already before the holiday period beginning on 2 May 2020.

Summer job

Can an employer cancel an already agreed summer job due to coronavirus?

Fixed-term contracts cannot be cancelled, even if the situation has changed. Verbal agreements are as legally binding as written ones. In additions, fixed-term contracts cannot be terminated, unless the provisions of termination have been agreed when the employment contract was concluded. In addition, the employment relationship cannot be terminated (as a regular or trial period cancellation) before the work is commenced.

Trip abroad

Can an employer oblige an employee to go to work immediately after returning from abroad?

There is no possibility for the Occupational Safety and Health Authorities to intervene if the employer assigns the employee to work immediately after returning from abroad. Contrary to the will of the employer, the employee can only be dismissed if a doctor has made a quarantine decision under the Communicable Diseases Act. However, the Government has strongly recommended that after traveling abroad, employees should stay in 'quarantine-like' conditions, distance working or otherwise absent from work.


Do employers have to pay wages if an employee remains in quarantine-like conditions and cannot come to work due to international travel?

This must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. It depends on whether the employee travelled for business or holiday and whether the trip took place before 12 March 2020, among other things. It must also be taken into account that there have never been situations or legal cases like this before. The final interpretation will not be made until court, in case ambiguous cases proceed to legal steps.

On 12 March 2020, the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs released instructions for avoiding international travel, and the Finnish Government recommended that employees returning from an epidemic area should agree on the date of resuming work and their two weeks’ absence with their employer. Distance work is encouraged, in case the work tasks allow it. In addition, any business travel that is not absolutely necessary should be cancelled, and holiday travel should be postponed.

If an employee has been on a business trip and is then placed in quarantine-like conditions, the employee is, in principle, entitled to be paid. If the employee has been abroad for holiday after the Finnish Government and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs released their instructions on 12 March 2020, the inability to work could be interpreted as a result of the employee’s activities, meaning that the employer is not obliged to pay wages. In case the trip has been taken before the release of the aforementioned instructions and the employer orders the employee to stay at home for a period of 14 days, it can in principle be concluded that the inability to work is not caused by the employee and that they are entitled to be paid.

The above information is based on the provisions of the Employment Contracts Act. Collective agreements may also contain more detailed provisions on the obligation to pay wages.

This is slightly different for government and municipal officials as the employment legislation applied to them contains no provisions on the obligation to pay wages in a situation where work is not possible due to reasons beyond the control of the official or their employer.

Risk assessment

Does an employer have to take the coronavirus into account in the workplace risk assessment?

Yes. Workplaces should update their hazard analysis and risk assessment in the light of the coronavirus epidemic. The employer should draw up the necessary instructions and procedures regarding the coronavirus situation.

More information on what to consider in the risk assessment during the Corona situation can be found in the guide for workplaces provided by the Ministry for Social Affairs and Health.


Taking the epidemic situation into account, what measures should an employer take on the basis of the risk assessment?

The employer shall take care of occupational safety also in exceptional circumstances. In the coronavirus situation, the primary measure to prevent worker exposures is to avoid human contact. The employer shall assess the need for workers to arrive at the workplace from the point of view of the workers' health. One way to avoid contact is to work remotely; if it is impossible, the workplace conditions shall be organized to minimize the risk of exposure. These measures may include enhanced cleaning, hygiene instructions for employees, use of protective screens to prevent drip infections, guidelines for workers to avoid exposure to corona, and advice on situations where exposure or illness is suspected, and various shift arrangements. Another recommended measure is to avoid unnecessary gatherings in breakrooms in the workplace.

If there is a significantly increased risk of infection, for example in work involving continuous human contact, personal protective equipment such as breathing protection, gloves, goggles and, if necessary, protective clothing shall be used. Maintenance, cleaning, and replacement of personal protective equipment must be maintained at all times.

Occupational safety and health enforcement

Do the Occupational Safety and Health Authorities monitor workplaces’ compliance with the government guidelines on coronavirus? 

The Occupational Safety and Health Authorities do not, in principle, monitor compliance with government guidelines, but they do monitor working at workplaces to ensure that it is safe and healthy even in the coronavirus epidemic situation.

Remote work and attendance in workplace

In office work, can the employer require employees to come to work, or does the employer have to accept remote work?

In the public sector, the Finnish Government has recommended that employers should order their employees to work from home. In the private sector, the employer has to assess if it is necessary to come to the workplace and the employees’ health into consideration. In accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the employer is responsible for minimising the risk of infection at work. The most efficient way to do this is by limiting unnecessary contact between employees. In office work, the easiest and surest way to avoid contact is by working from home. The employer is responsible for the employees’ safety, even if the employer requires them to work in the office. If the employer allows or requires the employees to work in the office, the employees should be instructed on how to minimise the risk of infection at work, for example, by keeping a safe distance from others.


Can employers require employees aged 70 or older to leave the workplace and go home?

The Finnish Government has released instructions that people aged 70 or over are to remain in quarantine-like conditions. Thus, people aged over 70 are advised not to go to work, excluding Members of the Finnish Parliament, the Finnish Government, and municipal elected officials. This is a recommendation, not a legislation-based prohibition. Employers can use their right of direction and ask their employees aged over 70 not to come to work. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employees have a right to refuse work that puts their or someone else’s life or health at risk. If possible, the employer can also ask the employee to work from home.


Can a workplace occupational safety and health representative or a shop steward order an employee suffering from symptoms of a flu to go home?

An OSH representative can, under certain conditions. A shop steward cannot actually order sick employees to go home, but he/she can, of course, urge them to do so, as can other workers in the workplace. 

As a guideline in the current epidemic situation, a symptomatic person is not allowed to go to work, even if the symptoms are minor. According to the Act on Occupational Safety and Health Enforcement, an OSH representative has the authority to suspend any work that causes immediate and serious danger. This may be the case if the symptoms clearly indicate a coronavirus infection and if the person works in contact with other employees. The OSH representative shall notify the employer of the suspension of work. The sick employee shall be advised to leave the workplace and contact the occupational or public health care. With a suspected coronavirus infection, one shall not go directly to doctor.

A shop steward does not have a similar statutory right to suspend work, but of course in this situation, it is a good idea for anyone to encourage a coworker with flu to go home.

Protective equipment

Can an employer not provide nurses with protective equipment against coronavirus infection?

The need for protective equipment depends on the tasks. If a nurse examines or cares for people suspected or known to have been infected with coronavirus, the employer must provide him/her with the necessary protective equipment. These include mouth and respiratory protection, face mask, and protective gloves. The employer must ensure that nurses are able to use the protective equipment properly.

More information about protective equipment in health care can be found in the guide of the Ministry for Social Affairs and Health (in Finnish).


Can an employee refuse to work in customer service, if the employer does not provide personal protective equipment that protects them from the coronavirus?

Only if the work poses a serious risk to the employee’s own life or health or to the life or health of others. The situation must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

For example, in health care where the employees face people infected with the virus, using protective equipment is necessary and the employer must provide it. If there is no protective equipment, refusing to work may be an option.

In other customer service tasks, the employer makes a case-by-case assessment on the use of protective equipment such as respirator masks and protective gloves. In that case, if the work is not considered to cause a serious danger as stated in the Occupational Safety and Health Act, there is no right to refuse work in principle. However, the issue should be considered on a case-by-case basis, taking the type of duties, customer contacts and other working conditions as well as the employee’s personal characteristics into account.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employees’ exposure to biological agents that cause hazards or risks to safety or health must be reduced to such a level that these agents do not cause a hazard or risk to the employees’ safety or health. One way to reduce exposure is to purchase personal protective equipment for the employees.

Break rooms

Can an employer disable break rooms / social facilities due to the coronavirus?

Yes, if the employer deems it necessary to prevent the infection from spreading. The employer makes the decision based on the hazard and a risk assessment. However, the employer shall ensure that there are adequate and appropriately equipped facilities for washing, changing, and for keeping clothes at, as well as facilities for dining, resting, toileting, and other personnel use available at or near the workplace, taking into account the nature and duration of the work and the number of workers. 

Useful links

The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health guidelines for workplaces
The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health guidelines for workplaces to prevent coronavirus infection.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment of Finland
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus and working life.

Daily allowance under the Communicable Diseases Act
If you want to know whether you are entitled to a daily allowance under the Communicable Diseases Act, see the up-to-date information on Kela website.