IN recent weeks, hospitality owners and customers alike have groaned collectively at the latest in ever-changing coronavirus restrictions, which are proving difficult for an embattled industry to navigate.

While these further, tougher restrictions are entirely necessary to help protect against what is looking to be another upwards curve in the virus, with regional differences coming into play, it is now more clear than ever that employers need to future proof their companies, starting with contracts, if they hope to retain jobs.

With furlough ending this week, and the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) stepping in to replace it, firms that are legally required to shut for some period over winter as part of local or national restrictions are set to receive grants to pay the wages of staff who cannot work - protecting jobs and enabling businesses to reopen quickly once restrictions are lifted.

Further updates to the JSS scheme, with JSS Open, mean that even businesses which can remain operating, but see their trading impacted by restrictions such as reduced hours, will also gain support.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government also announced the Covid-19 Restrictions Fund, designed to provide one-off grants of up to £3000 to bars, restaurants and other businesses required to close by regulations.

With current lockdown restrictions reducing, or completely ceasing trading hours for many in the hospitality sector, both the grant and the Jobs Support Scheme will provide a likely lifeline for many – but employers must ensure they are forward-looking, and plan for what might be required when the scheme’s support ends in six months’ time.

When accessing the Jobs Support Scheme, employers are required to implement changes in accordance with employment law. This, ultimately, means revisiting the terms and conditions of contracts with employees - as neither current contracts nor existing furlough agreements will automatically cover the proposed arrangements.

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Any reduction in hours must be agreed with staff – it is not as simple as prescribing fewer hours on the rota due to government guidelines.

It is also worth noting that, should any contractual changes come to an end with the Job Support Scheme, staff would automatically revert back to their original terms and conditions of employment, including the right to work a certain number of hours each week and receive a guaranteed level of pay.

So, whilst re-evaluating contracts to introduce JSS, employers would be wise to forward plan, looking at their expected peaks and downtime in trading against their contracted employee hours.

To avoid redundancies at a later date, they may have to consider renegotiating contracts which outline a minimum number of hours, which can be worked over and above during peak times, but allows for a degree of flexibility to accommodate an ever-changing situation. Undoubtedly, success will much depend on employee co-operation so keeping staff "on-side" via clear communications and strong levels of engagement will be key.

Indeed, these contractual changes and updated terms and conditions may be here to stay – safeguarding both business and employee interests for any future unprecedented events.

Ann Frances Cooney is a legal director at Addleshaw Goddard. She has more than 15 years of experience in employment law