The coronavirus pandemic places considerable pressure on workplaces, as employers struggle to balance health and safety concerns, their obligations to employees and the continuity of business operations in challenging circumstances.
Likewise, employees may be concerned for their own health and wellbeing, and face uncertainty regarding their entitlements should they need to self-isolate, care for a family member or the business activities come to a standstill.
The following guidelines consider some of these situations noting that each case is unique, and employers and employees should obtain legal advice regarding their rights and responsibilities.
Workplace health and safety
Employers have a primary duty of care to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers it engages. The duty extends to an organisation’s employees, contractors, outworkers, apprentices, trainees, work experience students, volunteers and visitors.
Employers can take steps to minimise the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace by communicating directions to employees that reflect Government and World Health Organisation’s recommendations. Basic personal protective measures include:
• washing hands frequently with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water;
• maintaining social distancing (at least 1 metre);
• avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth;
• practising respiratory hygiene (sneezing into a bent elbow or tissue); • regularly cleaning surfaces such as benchtops, doorknobs and desktops.
Employees who have travelled to or from COVID-19 affected areas within the past 14 days, or have been in contact with somebody suspected of having or being diagnosed with COVID-19, should self-isolate for 14 days and obtain medical clearance before returning to work. Employers are encouraged to review policies for flexible and remote working to help deal with absences due to quarantine requirements.
For more detailed information visit www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novelcoronavirus-2019
Leave entitlements – general sick leave
Generally, standard paid sick leave and carer’s leave for full-time and part-time workers applies, where relevant, and employees may be requested to provide evidence when requesting sick leave. Under current circumstances however, employers might be mindful of placing additional pressure on an already-stretched health system and the unnecessary exposure of a worker to other unwell people.
If workers have displayed symptoms of coronavirus but have not been exposed or tested, employers may require them to self-isolate for a period of time taking into account advice received from health authorities.
If a full-time or part-time employee is directed to stay home by an employer acting in accordance with Government health and quarantine advice, the employee should generally be paid while the direction is in place.
If the employee is subject to a government order or direction to self-quarantine, the employer is not likely required to pay the employee, although the employee may utilise accrued leave entitlements. Alternatively, workers who are in mandatory isolation but able to work, may negotiate remote working conditions with their employers and be paid their ordinary wage.
If an employee or family member has coronavirus
An employer may send an employee home if they suspect that they have been exposed to coronavirus.
Employees who have contracted coronavirus must not attend work and may be directed to provide a medical clearance before returning. In such circumstances, full-time and part-time workers may use accrued sick leave entitlements.
Employees are also entitled to paid carer’s leave if they need to look after a family member with coronavirus or have an unexpected emergency.
If sick leave and / or carer’s leave is exhausted a worker may request to use other accrued leave such as annual leave or long service leave.
The Fair Work Act 2009 provides that an employer may not terminate an employee due to their absence because of an illness or injury.
Stand down provisions
The Fair Work Act 2009 contains provisions enabling an employer to stand down employees ‘during a period in which the employee cannot usefully be employed’ due to a range of circumstances which include, ‘a stoppage of work for which the employer cannot reasonably be held responsible.’
The employer is not required to pay the employee during a stand-down period.
Similar provisions may also be included in awards, enterprise agreements and employment contracts.
Determining the application of stand-down provisions can be complex and may only arise in limited circumstances. Employers are urged to seek legal advice if they propose relying on them.
We’re here to help
Coronavirus presents enormous challenges and the domino effect on the economy of a pandemic such as this, will in turn put even more strain on health and wellbeing, and cannot be ignored.
We hope you find this information useful, noting that the circumstances we are facing are unique, and the directions issued to address the complications of COVID-19 are constantly evolving. We urge you to keep up to date with developments by closely monitoring reliable sources of information. Most importantly, we trust you and your loved ones stay safe.
Please call us on 07 4724 1016 or email [email protected] if you need more information or assistance.