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ALERT: Employers and COVID-19

This is indeed a difficult time for all employers and their employees. It is a time for consideration of all available facts and information. Aitken Legal stresses that your primary sources of information about the COVID-19 health situation should come from the Federal Department of Health and the Queensland Department of Health. With a nationally coordinated response, the Department of Health Website www.health.gov.au is an excellent source of information for all of us.

Current Health Advice

As at Sunday, 15 March 2020 and as applicable from Monday, 16 March 2020, the following information is pertinent to general health related matters, but also in consideration to how workplaces will function:

  1. All returning travellers from overseas will need to self-isolate for a period of 14 days;
  2. There will be no mass gatherings of more than 500 people;
  3. Handshaking should not occur;
  4. There should be social distancing and no unnecessary risks taken, including being 1.5 metres from all other persons;
  5. Any employee who is sick should not attend the workplace; and
  6. Each person should be tested:
  • If they have returned from overseas in the past 14 days and have developed respiratory illness with or without fever
  • If they have been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case in the past 14 days and develop respiratory illness with or without fever
  • If they have severe community-acquired pneumonia and there is no clear cause
  • If they are a healthcare worker who works directly with patients and has a respiratory illness and a fever.

A number of the above will have direct relevance as to how workplaces will in function at least in the short term and medium term.

The Department of Health is stressing that there should not be panic buying of items from supermarkets and the like.

Further there should not be panic about being tested and that all people should know the symptoms of COVID-19 and make necessary enquiry if they are concerned, but definitely be tested if they have recently travelled overseas and/or been in contact with somebody who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The focus of the co-ordinated health response is to try and ensure that the rate of infection is slowed – which is referred to as ‘flattening the curve’. What is sought to be achieved is that there is not a flooding of the health services such that they become overwhelmed.

All the evidence points to the fact that infections will continue to rise, but the hope is that they will be slowed and spread over a longer period (enabling health services to cope more easily with demand).

With the above in mind, undoubtedly workplaces will continue to be affected for some time.

Note that each State has power to enforce self-isolation, so if for example, visitors return from overseas they must self-isolate and this will be enforced. Anyone who has the virus and is not admitted to hospital will need to self-isolate.

Aitken Legal encourages all readers to update their information on a daily basis through access to the Federal Department of Health website.

The most important aspect of controlling this infection is awareness, but also ensuring that we all practice good hygiene. Importantly, there should be frequent washing of hands with soap and water, and if available hand sanitizer can be used.

Workplaces

All workplaces should be ensuring that:

  1. they are up-to-date with what is occurring with information released from the co-ordinated Department of Health response;
  2. they have a COVID-19 Health Officer who coordinates all information for the workplace and who makes that information available for employees;
  3. the employers update their employees about the virus and its impacts (if any) on the workplace;
  4. it ensures that those employees that have returned from overseas self-isolate;
  5. they ensure that all employees who are sick do not attend the workplace;
  6. if there are impacts upon the workplace, that employees are advised in a timely way of those impacts.

Unfortunately, there will be impacts upon the workplace. For example, particular workplaces may be affected by circumstances such as:

  • clients and suppliers contracts putting on hold;
  • customers not attending premises or sourcing services; or
  • people and staff self-isolating.

At times employers may need to consider a stand-down of their workers because of impacts directly related to the COVID-19 virus. Aitken Legal encourages all employers to obtain advice in the event that there are impacts upon the workplace and there needs to be a consideration of a stand-down or other arrangements because there is not enough work for employees to do.

All workplaces should be considering what availability there is for employees to work from home, and planning should be undertaken now because it could very well be the case that the functioning of workplaces will need to continue by work being undertaken at home.

All employees should be aware of their personal (sick) leave balances. If employees are sick, then they will need to use their available personal (sick) leave balances. Employers should ensure that they understand when personal (sick) leave can be used.

If self-isolation is necessary through medical directive or Government directive, the question of use of leave arises and in some instances that is a complicated question and necessary consideration of the applicable facts will need to be considered. There may be flow-on directions or actions necessary to members of households who are also employees.

Aitken Legal encourages all employers to obtain advice from it on the use of personal leave.

If you have casual employees, this is a very difficult situation for you and those employees. It will usually be casual employees whose hours are reduced first. The Federal Government has made changes to timeframe rules for the claiming of sickness benefits. There is a very active ACTU campaign for paid leave for casuals in particular COVID-19 situations. Some employers are introducing payment schemes for their casuals to assist them, but not all businesses will be able to do this. Each business will have to assess its own situation on how it deals with its casual workforce. Aitken Legal will be available to discuss all options with employers.

Aitken Legal will regularly update and alert employers as to progressive information, but again, Aitken Legal encourages all workplaces to be considered in its approaches, review all available information and take advice, and then act in the best interests of its business and its employees.

It is the case that we are dealing with difficult times and the key will be not to panic, but to have a considered approach moving forward. Professional workplace advice from Aitken Legal will assist in the managing of workforces.

Disclaimer:  The information contained this article is general and intended as a guide only.  Professional advice should be sought before applying any of the information to particular circumstances.  While every reasonable care has been taken in the preparation of this update, Aitken Legal does not accept liability for any errors it may contain.  Liability limited by a scheme approved under professional standards legislation.

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