Coronavirus / COVID-19 and the Workplace – A ‘what to do’ guide for business

17 Mar 2020
Author: Anna Jackman
 

As people’s uncertainty and level of anxiety around the risks of Coronavirus / COVID-19 rise, we are committed to keeping the community connected, not just to the latest information available, but access to practical advice about what to do.

On Tuesday 17 March 2020, Everest People[1] and DTI Lawyers zoomed live to a group of employer clients to provide an update on COVID-19/Coronavirus and business continuity planning. 

This article summarises the general information from that seminar, as it relates to planning, communication and leave. 

Please see our additional articles on ‘Q & A for business’, and an update on the Government announcements from an employment perspective. 


Ongoing planning

In planning, the health, safety and wellbeing of employees will be a key consideration, alongside business interests.

The key message is to follow the advice of the Ministry of Health and other relevant departments), including any emergency management plans and directives.[2]

Good faith

Open and transparent communication is key. Your people may be stressed and anxious, we recommend checking in, and keeping staff up to date and informed – even if that needs to be done remotely.

As always, act in good faith, reassure where you can. Ask your employees what specific concerns they have (do they have vulnerable people living with them – what reasonable support can you provide?). Remember, that you don’t need to have all the answers immediately. It’s fine to consider your employee’s questions/requests, seek advice and get back to them. If you’ve made the commitment to do that, ensure that you do follow up and respond to their queries/concerns.

Likewise, employees should be proactive in discussing any concerns with you. Open and honest communication is key.  Start, if you haven’t already, talking to your employees about their obligations, in particular with respect to health, safety and wellbeing. Set expectations:

  • regarding your employee advising you when they are unwell/symptomatic
  • for staying home when unwell – now is not the time to adopt the “box on” at work attitude to illness
  • for providing information about an employee’s contact with people who have returned from overseas
  • who will be told/what – balancing privacy rights with obligations to your other employees.


Administrative issues and company property

If you haven’t already, now is the time to update/confirm employee records, such as contact details for next of kin. It’s important to know who holds that information, and how it is accessed. Consider what you will do if that person is unavailable.

Review any remote working capabilities. Consider the safety and privacy of company and client information. Do you have a policy that covers this, including security of passwords. What are the company’s expectations with respect to company IT equipment (laptops, tablets, mobile phones etc). If your employee’s children are home from school – what is the company’s expectation with respect to children having access to that company property? Be clear and set those expectations from the outset.

Consider what to do in the event of a breach of company information/data/privacy. Who should that be reported to? When?

Consider an up to date database of all company property, including security passwords. Again, know who holds that information and how it is accessed.


Communication

We see the importance of a pre-approved communication strategy and plan, including:

  • timely, consistent and effective communication
  • talking to employees early
  • having one media/external interest group contact person

The situation is rapidly evolving. Keep up to date with developments and keep the lines of communication open with your employees. Your employees should be kept aware of the latest, including the potential impacts on the business, and on them. Do you need to talk about flexibility?  Options for taking leave? Different ways of working? 


Proposing restructure?

A proposal to restructure (even, perhaps especially, in times of crisis) needs to be substantively justified and undertaken in a procedurally fair manner. Genuine business reasons will need to be provided to the employees, with supporting information for their consideration and feedback. That information can be scrutinised by the Courts to assess whether it is what a fair and reasonable employer could have done in the circumstances. 

We recommend raising any such proposal as early as practicable, once you have information to support the proposal, and seeking specific advice at the time.



Leave and Pay issues

Check your employment agreements and policies! Consider the specific circumstances. 

Where the employee or their dependent is sick, sick leave entitlements apply. If entitlements have been exhausted, then you can agree to advance sick leave, annual leave, paid discretionary leave or leave without pay. 

From 17 March 2020, employees will also be eligible to the COVID-19 leave payment of $585.80 for a fulltime (more than 20 hours) worker and $350 per week for a part-time worker. 

Employees will also be eligible for this payment if they are well but are required to self-isolate or they have a dependant who is required to self-isolate.


Government announcement of support – 17 March 2020

In addition to the comments made above regarding COVID-19 leave, the following key points from an employment perspective were announced:

  • Wage subsidies for eligible businesses, which extend to contractors.
  • Payment of wage subsidies (as set out below) for workers unable to work because they are sick or required to self-isolate, have exhausted their sick leave entitlements, and cannot work from home. Those payments are expected to be available within 5 working days.
  • A redeployment package, to assist employees train to work in other industries, with Tairāwhiti Gisborne being the first area to benefits.
  • Raising of benefits by $25 per week.
  • Business tax changes, including a provisional tax threshold increase. 
  • Where a business can prove it is struggling financially as a result of COVID-19, and unable to pay its tax on time the Government plans to waive interest for some small businesses and the self-employed.


Of particular interest from an employment perspective, is that businesses will be eligible to apply for wage subsidies if they can show a decline in revenue for any month from January – June in comparison to the year before. The business will need to prove that it has mitigated the effects of COVID-19 including engaging with banks/financial institutions about plans, and make best efforts to retain employees and pay them a minimum of 80% of their normal income for the subsidised period. (More information about qualifying definition $585 per week will be available for fulltime workers or $350 a week for part-time workers. These packages are available immediately, and businesses are encouraged by the Government to apply for them as soon as possible.)


There will be processes put in place by the appropriate Government agencies to manage these changes, which may take time. However, we encourage businesses to be proactive in putting plans in place, and discussing the potential impact of COVID-19 on your workplaces, together with how these might be mitigated.

Application forms and a useful fact sheet can be found at the following links:

Application forms MSD – wage subsidy: https://services.workandincome.govt.nz/ess/employer_applications/new

https://services.workandincome.govt.nz/ess/trader_applications/new

Wage subsidy and leave payment fact sheet:

https://www.workandincome.govt.nz/documents/eligibility/emergencies/covid-19/wage-subsidy-and-leave-payment-employer-support-factsheet.pdf


Ongoing support

The DTI Lawyers employment team remains available to field enquiries from businesses (big and small) regarding the ongoing developments related to COVID-19 and its impact. We are resourced to work remotely, and have capability to manage both urgent and ongoing enquiries. If you would like further information or specific advice, please contact us on 07 282 0174.


This article was written by employment law specialists, DTI Lawyers Associate Anna Jackman and Solicitor Cassie Death, who are at the forefront of advising both employers and employees through the Coronavirus pandemic.

The information contained in this article is accurate as of the date of publication, but please note in this rapidly moving environment, you should review the DTI Lawyers website, or contact our team, to ensure it remains up to date.




 
 
 
Coronavirus / COVID-19 and the Workplace – A ‘what to do’ guide for business
About the Author
Anna Jackman
Anna Jackman is a specialist Employment Lawyer and Associate at DTI Lawyers. You can contact Anna at anna@dtilawyers.co.nz