The coronavirus crisis may be throwing some East Anglian employers off-track when it comes to keeping within new rules for overseas workers, an HR expert has warned.

Carole Burman, managing director of MAD-HR - which has offices in Ipswich, Norwich and Chelmsford - said around 70% to 80% of employers she works with has one or more overseas workers.

Employers are under a legal duty to prevent illegal working and can be slapped with a fine of up to £20k if they fail to do so, she warned.

But while her six-strong team works with existing clients to ensure that European Union (EU) employees have the proper paperwork now that the UK has left the EU, she admitted some of her new customers can be caught by surprise.

"When we have got new clients some of that has come as a bit of a shock for them because they didn't know they had to do it," she said.

The coronavirus pandemic had set back many small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) which were planning to get their heads around the implications of Brexit on their businesses in 2020, she explained. Now many had furloughed workers, and since they and not the employer need to complete the documentation by the end of June this year to get their settled status, they can face challenges.

Her company offers professional HR advice to companies across the East of England ranging in size from workforces of five to 4,500. Businesses involved in hospitality, agriculture, logistics, retail and warehousing were among those who employ overseas workers - often from eastern Europe, she said.

"Unlike large corporations small SME businesses tend to have fewer resources that they are able devote to big things like Brexit," she said.

With many things thrown into doubt during the run-up to Brexit, some firms had delayed considering issues until the dust had settled on Brexit - but were now hit by the fallout from the pandemic, she said.

Since January 1, 2021, EU, European Economic Area and Swiss citizens arriving in the UK need permission to work in the UK under the same rules as for the rest of the world.

But since January 2019, for those EU workers already living and working in the UK, employers have been able to rely on the Home Office online right to right checking service to check workers' immigration status.

Those who were resident in the UK by December 31, 2020 but do not have five years continuous residence by the date they apply will be assigned pre-settled status which allows them to stay in the UK until they have reached the five-year residence point.

"I would say they are struggling because some of the didn't know they needed to do it," she said of employers.

"If you think you have got it covered because these people have worked for you for some time, there's still some work to do.

"Unless you dedicate the resource to plan for it, you don't actually know what you have to do."

It can appear daunting at first glance, she said. "The difficulty is anything new can feel very complicated," she admitted.