Coronavirus / COVID-19 and the Workplace – Q & A for business

17 Mar 2020
Author: Andrea Twaddle
 

Dealing with Coronavirus / CODIV-19 is a collective responsibility and will require a collective effort. 

There is a lot of uncertainty that arises from the pandemic, which has led us to ensuring that people have ready access to information so that you can make informed, practical business decisions. In this series of articles (see links below) we are setting out critical information to help employers navigate the rapidly changing business landscape.


Where do I start? 

Employers and employees have an obligation to deal with each other in good faith. This means being proactive in your communication with each other. As employers, you should:

  • Tell employees of the expectation that if they have symptoms of COVID-19, have been in contact with someone who has symptoms, or have been advised to isolate, they must tell you.
  • Tell employees the process by which they should notify you.
  • Make sure employees have up to date information about symptoms and when to self-isolate: https://covid19.govt.nz/how-were-uniting/self-isolation/.
  • Update all contact information for employees.


Your obligations as an employer are to be fair and reasonable in all the circumstances. Those circumstances may change rapidly, so be prepared to revisit your decisions, in light of the shifting reality.


Should the organisation have a Policy?

It is always a good starting point to have a policy which sets out what might happen in an emergency situation, to allow your business to continue with the least disruption possible, and in a way that meets your obligations to your people, including ensuring their health and safety.

Policies set consistent expectations for all staff, and outline what should be done and how, to keep your people safe.

Generally, policies should:

  • Set out your response to COVID-19;
  • Address existing leave and working arrangements;
  • Set out employees’ obligations and practical guidance about the above, including what to do where a colleague, customer, or person in close proximity (e.g. close living arrangements) has symptoms associated with COVID-19;
  • Provide direction for any employees who may move to working remotely;
  • Provide guidelines for those managing remote workers;


What to do if an employee won’t come to work but are not required to self-isolate?

Employees are allowed to refuse to carry out work if they believe they would be exposed to a serious risk to their health and safety due to imminent exposure to a hazard.

Whether or not an employee has grounds to refuse to come to work where they do not have COVID-19 or have not been advised to self-isolate, will be a matter of circumstances.




Presently, you should reassure employees that the workplace is safe, take reasonable steps to minimise the risk posed by COVID-19, and ensure your personnel, and clients are well informed. This may include ensuring that you have regular contact with other organisations with which you work, such as suppliers, and other businesses in shared work spaces (e.g. office buildings), of expectations regarding what information they need to be notifying you of, i.e. if an individual has been tested, or is in self-isolation.

If community transmission of COVID-19 is confirmed, an employee could have grounds to refuse to come to work, based on an increased risk to their health and safety. Remember too, that an employee may argue that their mental health (including high levels of anxiety) is such that they are not fit for work.

Where an employee is certified unfit to work, they would be entitled to take sick leave, which may be paid if they have sick leave entitlements.

As part of the Government’s response, a COVID-19 Leave Payment is available to support people financially in need if they need to self-isolate and have used their leave entitlements. This will be paid to the employer to pass on to employees. Alternatively, unpaid leave may be agreed.


What should you do when an employee needs to self-isolate or be away from work?

If an employee has been advised to self-isolate based on the Ministry of Health Guidelines, or, is confirmed to have COVID-19, you should rely on the relevant health authorities for guidance. 

Be human. Your employee will need reassurance. 

You also need to work quickly to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading, and protecting your personnel, and the people you work with.


What happens if schools close or if an employee needs to take care of a vulnerable dependant?

Schools, day-cares and rest homes are expected to close when community transmission of COVID-19 is confirmed. When this occurs, children and/or dependants will likely need to be minded and cared for either by your employees or their wider family.

If it is practicable for an employee to work remotely, then trial working arrangements with them. It may not prove workable, and trialling the option in advance of necessity is a good idea. Alternatively, an employee may wish to take sick or annual leave. Where an employee has no entitlement to paid leave, if you have the means, you could consider some form of discretionary paid leave, or, look to make arrangements for leave to be paid in advance.

 

Our specialist team of employment lawyers at DTI Lawyers are working regularly with businesses across all sectors to prepare for and implement plans around the inevitable impact of COVID-19. This includes policy guidelines, and practical advice. 

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 – Q & A for business
About the Author
Andrea Twaddle
Andrea is an experienced specialist employment lawyer and Director at DTI Lawyers. She advises on contentious and non-contentious employment law issues, including privacy, and health and safety matters. Andrea is AWI-CH qualified, and undertakes complex workplace investigations. She is a former Council Member at the WBOP District Branch of the Law Society, and Coordinator of the WBOP Employment Law Committee. Andrea is a regular commentator on employment law issues and is frequently sought as a presenter at client and industry seminars, as well as for the provision of advice to other lawyers, professional advisors and leadership teams. You can contact Andrea at andrea@dtilawyers.co.nz