What easier Right to Work Checks thanks to COVID-19 mean for umbrella companies and their contractors

Back before the new normal we’re living in today thanks to a national pandemic -- in May 2014 in fact, the contractor industry saw umbrella companies in a fluster due to the introduction of Right to Work checks, writes Lucy Smith, managing director of Clarity Umbrella.

These checks dictated that every employer had a responsibility to ensure that its employees were legally entitled to work in the UK. And if these checks were not adhered to, then the fines could be hefty.

Right to Work checks; then -- and now

All employers, including umbrella companies, were supposed to comply with the legislation and demonstrate this responsibility with their employees -- their umbrella contractors -- in person. Or, at least, via a live video link.  

Without these face-to-face meetings, or video alternatives clear enough for employer to see the would-be employee’s physical features, the Home Office guidance made clear that brollies ran the risk of facing penalties that could reach up to £20,000 -- per candidate.

But we’re now far from 2014, and the new norm for the foreseeable is social distancing, working from home wherever possible and not going out unless it’s essential.

So, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 being spread by face-to-face interaction (the very thing the Home Office recommended since 2014), and to reduce the risk of catching coronavirus from document-handling, Right to Work checks just got liberalised.

In fact, with immediate effect (March 30th), the government has tweaked the legislation surrounding Right to Work checks temporarily, to make video calls the main way for umbrellas to be compliant.  

Four main takeaways about Right to Work amid the coronavirus

The other main takeaways from this Home Office announcement for the employer / the umbrella company and the employee/ the umbrella contractor, are:

  • Right to Work checks are still required during this coronavirus-covered period. So contractors and umbrellas, this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card!
  • The employer /umbrella can now ask the would-be worker to submit a scanned copy or photo of their original documents to you via email or using a mobile app. So you can forget the originals for the time being, apparently because COVID-19 is keeping master copies on lockdown!
  • The employer/umbrella can arrange a video call with the aspiring employee/contractor. Although note, this is something that many umbrella companies should be set up for already. For now, if you’re the new worker-hopeful, you will be asked to hold up the original documents to the camera so the employer/umbrella representative can check them against the digital version of the sent-documents.
  • The employer/umbrella then has to take note of the date on which the check has been made and label it as “adjusted check undertaken on [insert date] due to COVID-19”

In addition, as part of this coronavirus support package for Right To Work checks, employers (i.e. umbrella companies) are now also able to use the Employer Checking Service if a prospective or existing employee cannot provide any of the accepted documents. And if the aspiring worker has a current Biometric Residence Permit or Biometric Residence Card or status under the EU Settlement Scheme, the employer can use the online Right to Work checking service while doing a video call – although note, the applicant must give their express permission to view their details.

Umbrellas mustn't side-step the Home Office update

Still sounding strict however, the government stated yesterday that, although the rules have been somewhat relaxed, it will remain a criminal offence to knowingly employ anyone who does not have the right to work in the UK. So while the relaxed regime might still seem arduous to contractors and their brollies, it’s not something the umbrella company can side-step.

Indeed contractors, many umbrella companies will continue to provide additional checks to verify your identity and right to work checks, so this may not cause significant changes to their operations at present.

It has been noted by the Home Office that these are deemed as temporary changes designed to make Right to Work checks easier during these challenging times. To us, they hopefully mean that the remote-working, flexible contractor market can blossom under such trying conditions.

Actually, we are currently seeing many end-clients need more remote workers, so these Right to Work changes will make it slightly easier to ‘onboard’ contractors and get them up and running quickly via an umbrella company.

Are you ready for restrospective checks?

Be aware that as of yet, there is no confirmed end date for this amendment, but officials say that post this current crisis period, the umbrella/employer may be asked to carry out retrospective checks on workers /contractors who started working during this unique period. Crucially, these checks will need to be conducted within eight weeks of the Covid-19 measures ending. If, at the point of carrying out the retrospective check, the umbrella finds the employee does not have permission to be in the UK, the worker will be forced to end their employment.

The upshot of all this is that caution must still be made when onboarding. For the avoidance of doubt or complacency during the coronavirus outbreak, the government has stated that an employer – such as an umbrella company, “must take extra care to ensure no-one is discriminated against as a job applicant or employee if they are unable to show you their documents”.

Final thought

All in all, these Right to Work changes represent a sensible, timely update from the government which seem to put people first – and hopefully people in work, in the safest, most efficient way possible during the pandemic.

Wednesday 1st Apr 2020
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Written by Lucy Smith

Lucy has been in the umbrella market since 2013, and has always been an advocate of compliance and transparency in this industry. Offering Clarity by name and by reputation! Clarity Umbrella Ltd Lucy has sat on numerous HMRC round table events; contributed to the Low Income Tax reform group and is always on hand to provide advice to the ContractorUK forums.
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