Coronavirus: Your obligations as an employer

Posted on 16/3/2020

HR & Recruitment

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Overview:

With the recent rapid spread of COVID-19, now official declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, Perks People Solutions has received many requests for advice from employer clients about their obligations under workplace laws in this unprecedented situation. It is critical that all businesses review their operations and planning to ensure they are appropriately equipped to respond to the situation and have a clear understanding of their obligations to employees.

The rapid global spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) is causing increasing headaches for businesses, disrupting operations and creating logistical and safety issues for employers and their workers.

While the focus should be foremost on ensuring the health and safety of your employees, there are also pressing issues relating to employee absences and payment for those absences.

Over the past week, the team at Perks People Solutions have received numerous enquiries related to this topic and felt it timely and pertinent to address some of the key concerns and obligations that all employers need to be aware of.

 

What are your duties under WHS laws?

As part of your duties under WHS legislation to provide a safe workplace for employees, you are required to provide important information to employees regarding health and safety issues. Accordingly, you should be providing regular updates to your employees about the COVID-19 outbreak in line with advice being provided by the Department of Health and World Health Organisation, which can be found here and here.

In addition to providing information to your workers, employees should also implement measures to reduce the risk of virus transmission in the workplace.

This should include the following activity:

  • Reminding employees and others entering your workplace of the importance of high personal hygiene standards to protect against the spread of infection
  • Providing employees and visitors with easy access to handwashing facilities and alcohol-based hand sanitisers.
  • Ensuring all hard surfaces such as counters and door handles are more regularly disinfected.
  • Utilise and display posters available from the Department of Health with important information about COVID-19 and how to stop the spread. Resources are available here in multiple languages.

Importantly, employers should also remind their employees of their WHS duty to take care of not only their own health and safety but also that of their work colleagues.

Many organisations are also taking steps to reduce or eliminate face-to-face meetings, unless absolutely essential, and utilising phone or video calls as an alternative.

 

Managing suspected cases and ‘at-risk’ employees

While the likelihood of one of your employees being infected with COVID-19 presently remains quite low (as of March 12, there were 126 confirmed cases Australia-wide), it is important for employers to take active steps to minimise the potential within their workforce by identifying employees who may be at risk of carrying the virus.

As an employer, you should direct all employees to notify you immediately if:

  • they or a member of their household have travelled to a high-risk country (a list of which can be found here) in the last two months;
  • they or a member of their household is suffering or has suffered from flu-like symptoms since February 2020; or
  • they or a member of their household have been or have potentially been exposed to COVID-19.

In the event that an employee answers ‘yes’ to any of the above, they can be considered as being at-risk of carrying or transmitting the virus and employers may legally direct such employees to not attend the workplace until they have been medically tested and have obtained written clearance from a doctor.

Under these circumstances, as an employer you are obligated to pay the employee while they seek the necessary testing and medical clearance.

At this time, employers may also want to consider their Working from Home Policy, Procedure and Checklist.  If business operations suit an employee working from home this could be a viable option for employees who are at risk.

 

What to do if an employee tests positive or is directed to self-isolate?

If an employee does test positive for coronavirus, then that employee must self-isolate for 14 days from the date they were first exposed to COVID-19 or from the date they left a high-risk country. From the time an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19, they will be required to use their accrued paid sick leave and before returning to work they will require a written medical clearance from a doctor.

If any employee has not tested positive for COVID-19 but is required to self-isolate (anyone returning from overseas from 16 March 2020 is required to self-isolate for 14 days), then they can access paid annual leave if available. Personal or sick leave can be used where an employee has no paid annual accrued.

If an employee has no sick or annual leave, or is a casual employee, as an employer you may want to consider your capacity to provide these employees with additional leave entitlements. Doing so is entirely at your discretion as an employer and you should evaluate the financial ability of the business to provide additional paid leave, the impact on business continuity and the potential risk of an employee returning to work before they have fully recovered and possibly infecting other staff.

Should the ability of your business to operate be compromised by COVID-19 – i.e. if the whole or majority of your workforce cannot attend the workplace or work effectively from home – then you as an employer can utilise the shutdown provisions provided for under the relevant Award. This means that employers are not required to pay wages during this period; however, ensure you first seek advice before enacting such a measure. Some employees with rostered days-off or time in lieu may also want to access these entitlements during this time.

 

What does the future hold?

The weeks and months ahead are, at this point, mostly unknown. The coronavirus outbreak and subsequent global responses change on a daily basis and nobody can accurately predict how the situation will continue to unfold. Importantly, all employers should continue to address the situation and update their employees as new information comes to light.

In the case of travel, there are several precautions employers should consider moving forward.

  1. Consider whether scheduled travel for work in 2020 to any high-risk or moderate-risk (as listed here) countries is necessary and evaluate the WHS risk.
  2. Employers may advise employees who are scheduled to travel to high-risk or moderate-risk countries on personal holiday that they will be required to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return. During this 14-day self-isolation period, that employee will be required to use their annual or personal leave or leave without pay if they do not have any of the former accrued.

If you require any specific guidance on your obligations as an employer regarding infectious disease and your duty of care as an employer, please contact Cecilia White, HR Director of the Perks People Solutions team. For questions about testing, the welfare of people with COVID-19, or symptoms contact the South Australian Department of Health.

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