Victoria has declared a state of emergency in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). The coronavirus and the public health measures that will be taken to limit its spread presents numerous challenges to businesses. In this article, we provide general information to help employers navigate the next few weeks and months.
- Ensure that your business has implemented good hygiene policies. Provide employees with hand sanitisers and maintain clean work surfaces.
- Advise employees and customers who are feeling sick or showing flu-like symptoms to stay at home.
- Where possible, use telephone or video conferencing instead of face to face meetings.
- If an employee who has been attending work has contracted the coronavirus, it may be necessary for all employees to self-isolate, and employees may need to seek medical attention. Where possible, this will mean asking employees to work from home.
- Prepare to cancel any larger meetings. Meetings of over 500 people are already required to be cancelled, and that number is likely to be reduced imminently.
- Further information can be found on the Federal Government’s guide for employers.
- The Australian Government is now requiring all people who return to Australia after travelling overseas to self-isolate for 14 days. For most businesses, this will mean that they should cancel all overseas work related travel.
- Discourage employees from travelling overseas for personal travel. If any employee does insist on travelling, ensure that you have arrangements in place for what happens on their return to Australia. This is likely to involve the employee in question taking a further two weeks annual leave on their return so that they can self-isolate.
Working from home
- It is highly likely that some or all of your employees will be unable to work from your office or worksite. Develop strategies to allow your employees to work from home, whether in the event that they need to self-isolate, or because your entire workplace needs to shut down.
- Your workplace health and safety obligations extend to your employees who are working at home. Whilst you cannot control your employees’ home environment, you should still take reasonable steps to ensure that they are safe. For example, if an employee is setting up a desk or work equipment so that they can work at home, ensure that they have any help that they need, and that they know how to operate the equipment.
Flexible Workplace Arrangements
- There is likely to be major social disruptions as a result of the coronavirus. For example, schools and childcare centres are likely to close, meaning that your employees with young children may need changes to their normal work patterns to allow them to care for their children.
- Many employees will be entitled to request flexible workplace arrangements in circumstances where they need to care for young children.
- There are likely to be restrictions on public transport. Consider how your employees who rely on public transport should respond if public transport is cancelled.
- Create a culture where it is expected that if an employee is feeling slightly unwell or showing any symptoms (even if they think they are able to work), that they should take leave. This minimises the risk both to them, to your other employees and to customers.
- Full time and part time employees who are unwell, or who have a family member or members of their immediate household who are unwell, are entitled to take accrued paid personal leave.
- All employees who are unwell are entitled to unpaid leave.
- Employers are entitled to ask for evidence (medical certificates and statutory declarations are commonly required). We recommend that employers show some flexibility on their evidence requirements, so as not to discourage employees taking leave and to not unnecessarily require employees who otherwise would not need to see a doctor attending simply to obtain a medical certificate.
- Follow Government advice in requesting medical clearance for employees who you consider at risk of having contracted the coronavirus. You have an obligation to ensure that your employees are safe to return to work. However, with the public health system having limited capacity to test for the virus, only those who are considered at risk of having contracted the virus should seek testing for the virus.
- In some cases, businesses may need to shut down. This is likely to be a stressful and difficult time for everyone.
- Ask people to work from home, if at all possible, rather than standing them down from work.
- If it is necessary to shut down, consider asking employees to take accrued annual leave or long service leave.
- You may consider discussing flexibility arrangements with your employees, such as allowing them to take half leave at half pay. Make sure you document any agreement reached.
- Further, employers can often direct employees to take annual leave. However, you will need to check the Award or Enterprise Agreement that applies to your employees.
- As a last resort, employers may be able to stand down employees without pay, provided that the stand down is caused by a stoppage of work that is beyond the employer’s control. This could include:
— The breakdown of supply chains; or
— The need to close the business as a result of a direction of government.
It may not include a situation where an employer decides on its own initiative to close down business out of concerns for the virus.
Again, employers need to check any Award, Enterprise Agreement and Contract of Employment that applies to their employees to determine their rights and obligations with respect to standing down employees.
- Casual employees lack many of the benefits of permanent employees. If you can no longer provide casual employees with shifts, encourage them to apply for the assistance that the Federal Government is providing as part of its package to fight the economic effects of the virus. This would also apply to permanent employees who do not have an entitlement to paid leave.
Please note, the guidance in this article is of a general nature only as of 16 March 2020 and should not be relied upon as legal advice. The situation is likely to change rapidly, and you should visit the relevant government websites for up to date information.
How can Sharrock Pitman Legal assist?
If you require specific legal advice for your situation, please contact us on 1300 205 506 or alternatively fill in the contact form below.
The information contained in this article is intended to be of a general nature only and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Any legal matters should be discussed specifically with one of our lawyers.
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Samuel is a Legal Practitioner at Sharrock Pitman Legal.
He deals with areas of Commercial Law, Employment Law and Charities & Not for Profit Law. For further information, contact Samuel on his direct line (03) 8561 3316.