Due to the volume of enquiries that we are receiving from our clients about coronavirus (Covid-19), we have produced an FAQ guide. It’s important that you, as business owners, keep up to date daily and follow advice from the following organisations where they apply to your business/industry, as these take precedence over the FAQ responses in this document:
- Fair Work Ombudsman (all employers should follow these guidelines)
- Australian Government Department of Health
- Coronavirus Health Information Line 1800 020 080
- Travel advice
The information on this page was last updated on Wednesday 25th March.
As a general rule, employers should do the following:
- Keep communication flowing. This is an ever-changing situation so it’s important to keep talking about the actions you are taking. Have an open-door policy for any concerns that employees may have.
- Review and update all employee contact numbers and emergency contact details.
- Know where your staff are travelling to and returning from. This applies to both business and holiday travel.
- Remain current with government advice regarding self-isolation/quarantine requirements. See above websites.
- If serious symptoms such as trouble breathing present, call 000, otherwise contact the coronavirus health information line 1800 020 080 or your GP.
- Managers should be informed of how to spot symptoms of coronavirus, see above links.
- Have a clear process to follow if someone is diagnosed with coronavirus.
- Ensure that you provide clean places for people to wash their hands with hot water and soap and encourage your staff to do this regularly.
- Think about protective resources. For example, hand sanitisers/gel and tissues should all be made available.
- Increase general cleaning routines for handrails, door handles etc.
- Think about planned business travel and question whether it is essential.
- Have a working from home policy.
- Have a business continuity plan.
- Keep employees thinking pragmatically. Those who have laptops should take them home each night so they can continue to work if they are unable to come in.
All sectors related FAQ:
Q. If an employee has returned from overseas, or been in contact with a person with coronavirus, or is under a government mandate to self-isolate for 14 days – are they on paid or unpaid leave?
Consider any appropriate arrangements to mitigate financial loss to the employee such as allowing the employee to work from home (if possible) or use their accrued paid leave entitlements (annual leave or long service leave). If the employee has no paid leave entitlements, they are entitled to unpaid leave.
Q. What if an employee presents for work and they are sick? Can I send them home to self-isolate?
If you request staff to self-quarantine, beyond the government recommendations, you must pay them as normal.
Q. What if an employee refuses to come into work, or perform certain duties, as they are concerned about being exposed?
If an employee refuses to attend work (or perform certain duties) as a precaution, unless they are acting in accordance with government advice to do so, you do not have to pay them or allow them to access leave. You can agree to do so anyway.
We would suggest considering alternative work arrangements such as working from home or implementing other hygiene protocols.
Q. Does the employer have to pay an employee to self-isolate?
If you are directing an employee to self-quarantine, and this is beyond government recommendations, then yes you need to pay them as normal.
If you are directing an employee to self-isolate, within government recommendations, then see above.
Q. Does the employer have to allow an employee to work from home (if they are not sick)?
It is up to you to decide if this is an appropriate arrangement for your business, depending on the role and whether you have the required IT and other infrastructure to support it.
You will need to ensure your Working from Home policies are up to date and appropriate health and safety risk assessments are performed.
Q. What if schools and childcare centres close and an employee has to stay home and care for their child? What type of leave will they be on?
Personal (carer’s) leave is available to care for someone in an unexpected emergency such as needing to care for a child due to sudden school closure.
Permanent employees are able to access paid personal/carer’s leave, and casual employees are able to take unpaid carer’s leave to care for their children.
You may wish to consider whether the employee is able to continue some work from home in this scenario.
Q. What about casuals or independent contractors?
The government has recently announced that they will waive the one week wait period for access to sickness allowance for casuals and contractors (but not sole contractors).
Otherwise, there is no requirement to pay casual employees or contractors.
Q. Can the employer direct employees not to travel overseas or interstate?
Employers must act in accordance with Government mandates on travel restrictions, and where someone has travelled, they will have to self-isolate in accordance with government advice upon their return.
Q. What if the employer needs to close all or part of the business?
It is best practice to try and deploy staff to other duties where possible, or reduce hours of work instead of standing them down.
If a business is required to temporarily cease its operations due to government advice (i.e. it is outside of the employer’s control), the employer may be able to stand down employees that cannot usefully be employed. This will depend on any agreements, awards or contracts applicable to the employees. We recommend you source independent legal advice if this is the only option you have.
Q. Can the employer force employees to reduce their hours or salary in the event of a business slow-down?
Changes to working hours or remuneration for permanent employees may constitute redundancy depending on the circumstances.
We would suggest consulting with your employees to find alternative solutions where possible such as reductions in hours or salary for a period of time by agreement between the employer and employee.
This agreement should be in writing to avoid confusion.
Q. Our employees are talking about refusing to come to the office because their colleagues may infect them. They would rather work from home or have the time off until coronavirus passes. What do we do?
If an employee is not sick and has not been instructed to self-isolate or be quarantined, and they refuse to attend work, then this would be unauthorised absence and unpaid. However, our advice is to take a pragmatic approach. As situations like these happen so rarely, don’t be concerned about setting a precedent. If it’s possible for employees to work from home then this is a good option. If this isn’t possible (we understand that a lot of businesses do not have the technology to fulfil this), then reassure employees by having plenty of antibacterial hand-gel and soap available. Remind employees about hygiene standards in the office.
This is an ever-changing situation. So keep talking with your employees and keep an eye on the news and on guidance from the professional bodies that relate to your industry, particularly in cases concerning travel and those who are vulnerable.
Q. What do we do when an employee has booked annual leave, but their holiday is cancelled because of a situation outside of their control (e.g. flight cancellations or travel bans). Can the employee cancel their annual leave and take it again at another time?
This is at your discretion as an employer. It might be straight forward for you to allow this with minimal business disruption. Where possible we are sure most businesses will try to support employees in this situation.
Q. What if an employee comes into work and I am concerned they have coronavirus?
Follow official guidance, see links above.
Q. If business starts to slow down, can I force employees take annual leave?
This will depend on the award, agreement or employment contract that applies to your employees or organisation. Generally speaking, there are limited circumstances where you can insist on employees taking annual leave (e.g. in the case of excessive leave balances).
We suggest you work with your employees to find a solution that you both agree on.
Q. What happens if I need to make someone redundant?
The normal rules will still apply. You will need to demonstrate that it is a genuine redundancy; you need to follow any consultation requirements in the relevant award, agreement or contract; and you need to consider all other alternatives such as redeployment. You will also need to comply with any notice requirements and pay any redundancy, leave and other statutory entitlements as applicable. We strongly advise that you seek specific advice in these circumstances.
Q. What other options do I have instead of redundancy or stand down?
Depending on your business and any Government restrictions that may be applicable, you might want to consider other arrangements in consultation with your employees. These could include a reduction in hours/days worked by employees, split rosters or job share, working from home, employees taking accrued leave entitlements or unpaid leave for a period of time or redeploying people to other roles or areas of the business if appropriate. We advise you to document any changes made to an employee’s conditions of employment to avoid any confusion.
Q. What action should we take if schools close and parents can’t attend work?
The usual rules apply for personal (carer’s) leave, so parents should arrange appropriate childcare as quickly as possible. But, in the meantime, employers should support parents where possible.
If parents can work from home, this will help if their children are old enough to not require constant attention during working hours.
Service Providers FAQ
(e.g. businesses providing specific services on a large scale into other organisations such as Universities, Aged Care Facilities, Schools etc)
Q. If the business/entity that our organisation provides services to is shut down or quarantined and we cannot access the facility for a period of time, what are our obligations to our employees who we cannot provide work for during this time?
We would encourage you to communicate openly and frequently with your employees about the situation and consult with them on any solutions you are considering. You may have specific consultation requirements under your Award, registered agreement, contract of employment or other legislative instrument applicable to your organisation. You will need to ensure you consult in line with any of these requirements.
Depending on business requirements, the following options may be considered for your employees:
- Working from home/another location where possible and where technology allows, ensuring any changes to working conditions are made in line with provisions in the relevant Award, agreement or Fair Work Act.
- Bring forward any other projects or client work that can be rescheduled
- Where not all sites/clients are affected, consider options for work-sharing i.e. an employee at a non-affected site may be willing to take a period of leave whilst an employee from an affected site temporarily fills their role
- Redeploy employees (where they have the skill/knowledge required) on any internal business process improvement or projects that do not require them to be onsite
- Invite employees to take any paid leave they have accrued i.e. annual or long service leave
- Require an employee to take annual leave (where their Award or agreement allows it), or if they are award or agreement free, if it is reasonable in the circumstances. Each case will need to be determined on its own merits and in line with Award or agreement provisions.
- Consider whether a reduction in working hours is feasible i.e. reducing to part-time or job-sharing for a period of time. Any alternative arrangements altering an employee’s pattern of work will need to be made in accordance with the relevant Award, agreement or Fair Work Act, and normally have to be in writing.
- Invite employees to take a period of unpaid leave, to be reviewed on a regular basis with the intention of getting them back to paid employment at the earliest possible time.
- As a last resort the business may need to consider standing down employees for a period of time because they cannot be usefully employed. An employee’s enterprise agreement or employment contract may contain provisions dealing with a stand down, and these must be complied with. If there is no provision in the contract or enterprise agreement, the Fair Work Act 2009 allows stand down to occur in certain circumstances (e.g. natural disasters or emergencies) where the employer cannot be held reasonably responsible for a stoppage of work. In these cases, the employer is not required to pay employees for the period of the stand down but may choose to do so. You may want to consider getting specific legal advice if this is the only viable option.
The following points may be included in the above responses. But for ease, this section hopes to answer all queries related to pay.
As a small business you always have discretion to pay above the minimum we are setting out here.
Please bear in mind the possible impact of unpaid leave meaning staff choose not to follow their obligations on quarantine, and therefore are more likely to spread coronavirus to others in your workforce.
Q. Do I have to pay them if….?
- They choose to self-isolate?
This would be unpaid unauthorised absence, however you may wish to consider allowing them to access their paid leave entitlements if they want to take them, in accordance with leave policies.
- They are instructed by a medical professional to self-isolate?
No, unless they have paid personal leave entitlements available to use, in which case they may request to access this, in accordance with leave policies.
- They are in quarantine?
No, unless they have paid personal leave entitlements available to use, in which case they may request to access this, in accordance with leave policies.
- They are in lockdown in a hotel in another country?
No, however you may wish to consider allowing them to access their paid leave provisions if they want to take them, in accordance with leave policies.
- They have cold/flu symptoms and should be in self-isolation, but they feel fit to work and I want them to work?
Regardless of whether they feel fit to work, they must follow Australian Government advice. If this means that they must self-isolate, then there is no requirement to pay, however you may wish to consider allowing them to access their paid leave entitlements if they wish to take them, in accordance with leave policies. If they turn up for work you can send them home on health and safety grounds and pay them in full.
- They have cold/flu symptoms, are not in self-isolation and I don’t want them to work?
If they are saying they are fit to work despite their symptoms, and you don’t want them to attend work, then this would be deemed suspension on health and safety grounds so you would pay them in full.
We are aware that employers will not want their employees to have any financial difficulties. So we would encourage you to find ways of staff being able to work to enable them to receive full pay. For example, working from home. Or working on paper-based projects, if you don’t have the technical facility to allow them to work from home on computer equipment.
Regardless of your statutory obligations as an employer, it is unsettling that employees might suffer financially when self-isolating to protect their colleagues. Where they have paid leave entitlements they are able to access, we would encourage you to consider allowing them to take these to ease the financial burden.
If you have any other questions in relation to your employees, or any other HR issue, please contact us for advice.
Do you run a business and have a HR question about coronavirus?
The HR Dept provide outsourced HR support to employers. If you are an employee we would suggest that you contact the Fair Work Ombudsman.
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