COVID-19 & The Fair Work Act

by Helen Butler , 19 March 2020

Here is an update about where employers currently stand regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19) situation.

The three main questions that you keep asking are:

  • What happens if we have to close or we’re directed into quarantine?
  • Can I direct an employee to go home if they’re sick?
  • What are the implications of an employee working from home?

What happens if we have to close or we’re directed to go into quarantine?

Most modern awards and employment contracts should have a Stand Down clause in them. We commonly see this clause in times of natural disasters such as cyclones, floods or fires – you may have had to use these recently in the latest bushfires we’ve encountered.  The basis of this clause is that essentially, if there is an event that is outside the employer’s control then the employer can stand the employee down without pay for the period of time that that business can’t operate. For this clause to apply the event has to be outside of the employer’s control and COVID-19 certainly falls into this category.

If you are directed to close, or we are all directed into quarantine then you would advise your employees of that direction. Your employees would then utilise their annual leave entitlements or if they don’t have enough annual leave available to them, then they’d take unpaid leave.

Our advice though is to check that your award/contract contains a Stand-down Clause and the basis of that clause, as some modern awards actually state that the employee is to be stood down on full or partial pay. If you’re unsure please reach out to us so we can talk you through the implications and how to manage this with your employees.

We would suggest that the pre-emptive approach is best.  In these situations, good strong communication and consultation is best with your team, so they can prepare for a range of alternatives.  Your employees are aware of what is happening across the world and they will want to know what their entitlements are in this situation and it is best to be prepared to guide them through this time as best as you can.

We also need to stress that this advice, is not applicable f you make the choice to temporarily close your business for precautionary measures i.e. you have not been directed to do so. If that is the case, please reach out to us and we will provide you specific advice for that situation as that is different. 

In a lot of cases we are seeing that if you can, you are setting up your staff to be in a position to work from home and this has been beneficial from a health and well-being point of view for your staff, but also ensuring continuity of work.  It is essential during this time to ensure that communication is paramount.  The mental health of being in a self-distancing situation is something that is being discussed as well, so ensuring a lot of contact and facetime, scheduled and also checking-in will benefit the well being of your Teams.

Can we direct an employee to go home if they’re sick?

Under the National Employment Standards, an employer cannot direct an employee to take personal leave. However, under Workplace Health and Safety legislation an employer is obligated to maintain a safe and healthy workplace. If an employer reasonably feels that an employee is a causing significant and imminent risk to themselves or other persons in the workplace then they can request the employee attends their doctor for medical clearance. The key here is that it must be a genuine and reasonable belief that an employee coming to work is putting their health or safety or the health and safety of other workers at risk.

In cases of particularly contagious diseases such as chickenpox, smallpox or even COVID-19 then this would be a reasonable and genuine belief. So, if an employee has been diagnosed with COVID-19, then you can certainly direct them not to attend work whilst they are contagious. However, if they just have a general cold, or even the flu then it’s unfortunately a grey area and unlikely to be a reasonable direction. This however, will depend on your particular workplace, your polices and culture and what type of industry you’re in. Please reach out to us if you have specific questions about this or you’re considering directing an employee to go home.

What are the implications of an employee working from home?

During this past week we have seen organisations direct their employees to work from home for Health and Safety reasons, and are now playing catch-up on setting up and ensuring compliance with ergonomic and OHS standards.  And this is fine, the health and well being of your staff is paramount.  We are obviously in unchartered waters here and the first thing to do is a complete risk assessment.  We have available for your self assessment checklists and and a Workplace Health and Safety Checklist that you can email to your employees if they are going to work from home. They can then conduct a self-audit on their home work space.

If you’ve got any concerns or queries or would like a copy of the template, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We will provide you with updates if and when the situation changes.

We have set up a FaceBook Group that you can also join which may help you with not only genuine work related issues, but if families have children home to manage as well.  Balancing that work and family life can be tough and we have resources available to help you with all of this.

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