The Health Board has recommended employers allow employees returning from novel coronavirus-stricken areas to work from home for a period of two weeks if possible, but the state is leaving the costs involved in such an arrangement up to employers: the Health Insurance Fund (Haigekassa) will not be working out a preventive sick leave certificate system that will offer sickness benefits beginning the first day of leave.
Under the same recommendation, Latvia and Lithuania are allowing employees who have traveled from an area where coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has been diagnosed to take two weeks of preventive sick leave. Health Board Deputy Director General Jelena Tomasova said on Vikerraadio's "Uudis+" on Wednesday that the Health Board and the Health Insurance Fund were in talks to work out the funding of a similar solution, which would allow employees to work from home or stay home with children being kept home from school for the same two-week period.
The Health Insurance Fund refuted this claim on Thursday, however, confirming to ERR that no such talks have been held between the two bodies, nor is the Ministry of Social Affairs aware of such.
The Health Insurance Fund's recommendation follows the Health Board's guidelines: if an individual has returned from an affected area and has doubts about the state of their own health, but is not displaying any symptoms, they should contact their employer and reach an agreement regarding staying home or, if possible, working from home. In this case, however, there are no grounds for issuing a sick leave certificate.
"If someone returns from a vacation and they are completely healthy and they have not had direct contact with an ill carrier of the virus, then there is actually no reason why the state should pay for [their sick leave]," Haigekassa CEO Rain Laane told ERR.
In cases where the individual came in contact with an infected person on their trip or is displaying symptoms upon their return from an affected area, they should contact their family doctor, who will decide whether there are grounds for issuing a sick leave certificate or recommend they call emergency services at 112.
"The Health Board is recommending considering staying at home — recommending considering," said Estonian Family Medicine Association director Le Vallikivi. "That does not mean recommends staying home. I would say that people who feel well and have not had direct contact with coronavirus patients should act accordingly as well."
The Health Insurance Fund stressed that patients who feel ill and suspect coronavirus disease should not show up at the doctor's office, but rather consult with their doctor by phone, in order to avoid the risk of potential further spread.
According to fund spokesperson Vivika Tamra, coronavirus disease is being treated the same way as the flu and other respiratory infections, in which case sickness benefits are paid out according to general standards: starting on the third day of sick leave.
Should the government decide to quarantine parts or all of Estonia, only then will there be grounds for implementing quarantine sick leave certificates as provided for by law, under which healthy people can remain home from work. Such certificates, however, are only good for up to seven days.
Eesti Energia: Employees returning from abroad should stay home
Estonian state-owned energy group Eesti Energia, the country's biggest employer, is following Health Board guidelines and basing its internal communications on the same.
"We issued a recommendation to our employees who are returning or have recently returned from a vacation abroad to work from home for two weeks if the nature of their job even remotely allows for it," Eesti Energia spokesperson Priit Luts told ERR. "When planning vacations, we also recommend avoiding travel to areas at increased risk as highlighted by the Health Board. Hygiene requirements must also be strictly followed while traveling."
The company has also formed a temporary working group tasked with monitoring the spread of the disease in order to quickly make changes to work arrangements and provide employees with additional info if necessary.
Eesti Energia employs nearly 5,000 people, some one third of whom have the opportunity to work from home.
SEB: We'll rearrange our work if needed
SEB Bank employs nearly 1,000 people in Estonia, some 40 percent of whom could work from home if necessary. The bank is prepared to work out solutions for its tellers as well, for example, who otherwise cannot work from home due to the nature of their jobs.
"Those people who have been in at-risk areas, naturally we will allow for them to work remotely, if the opportunity exists, take a vacation if possible, stay home," SEB HR director Tõnu Sepp said. "Those employees who can't actually fulfill their everyday job duties at home, we are actually capable of providing them with short-term work for the time they are at home."
Swedbank implementing air travel-free week
Swedbank is likewise following Health Board guidelines and recommending employees who have visited at-risk areas to remain home from work for a period of two weeks.
"In accordance with Swedbank Group policy, we are implementing an air travel-free week next week — March 2-8," Swedbank communications director Kristiina Herodes said. "It was also decided to expand travel restrictions to already planned bus travel. Cleaning is also more thorough at our offices during virus season, and we have reminded our employees to follow hygiene requirements and the importance of strengthening their immune systems. We have also recommended our employees follow Health Board recommendations."
Employers: State needs to provide a solution
Estonian Employers' Confederation (ETK) managing director Arto Aas said that if a business' work arrangements allow for employees who have returned from at-risk areas to work from home in order to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus disease, they should do so, but stressed that employers and the nature of various work are all very different.
"I'm certain that in those places where it is easier to arrange for working from home temporarily, such agreements have already been reached," Aas said.
He noted that no good statistics exist regarding how many jobs in Estonia allow for such an option, but estimated that such jobs likely account for one third to one half of all jobs.
Aas acknowledged that rearranging work accordingly will incur expenses to employers, ranging from arranging for someone to fill in for employees all the way out to possibly halting the provision of public services in more complex situations.
Generally, however, he recommends remaining calm about the situation, and is not in favor of choosing lightly to stay home.
"We don't have a crisis; the government has not declared a state of emergency," he highlighted.
Should this situation remain for a prolonged period of time, however, an agreement needs to be reached with the state regarding who will pay for these expenses to employers and society, Aas said.
"It's easy for office workers if they have computers and an internet connection, but the majority can't simply stay home — from public transport to healthcare, all of this would grind to a halt then," he described. "In an emergency situation, the state should pick up the tab for these expenses."
Commonly referred to as the novel coronavirus, coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is caused by the virus severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, the capital of China's Hubei Province, in late 2019. Worldwide, more than 83,000 cases of coronavirus disease have since been confirmed, with more than 2,800 deaths attributed to the disease to date.
Editor: Aili Vahtla