With the emergence and spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Australia, employers need to be aware of their rights and obligations in relation to their workers.
Workplace health and safety obligations
Employers have a responsibility under the workplace health and safety (WH&S) laws to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers and other persons in the workplace. This involves identifying and eliminating or minimising risks and hazards to health and safety in the workplace so far as reasonably practicable.
Employers need to have the latest information and advice about COVID-19 and adapt the measures that they take in response as the situation develops. Websites such as Smartraveller and the Federal Government’s Department of Health websites have the latest information that employers regularly monitor. Steps that employers should consider taking in response to the latest information include:
- Complying with the latest federal and state government orders in response to the pandemic;
- Reviewing workplace policies for infection control and regularly updating employees about any changes as they occur;
- Ensuring that workers understand and observe any applicable quarantine periods;
- Providing clear advice to workers about what to do if they become unwell or believe that they may have contracted coronavirus; and
- Planning ahead to manage staff absences.
Where possible and appropriate, workplaces should plan ahead to give employees the capacity to work from home in the event that quarantine or lockdown restrictions affect either workers or the workplace. This can help minimise disruptions to business operations and productivity, and provide continuity of service to clients.
What are my payment obligations to my employees?
Workers who are unable to attend work due to quarantine but who have not contracted COVID-19 may not be able to utilise their accrued paid personal leave. Workers can use accrued paid annual leave and long service leave. If a worker is able to work from home during a quarantine period, they should be paid as normal.
Workers who become ill or are infected with COVID-19 are entitled to be paid any accrued personal leave entitlements. Likewise, accrued paid carer’s leave can be utilised if a worker’s family member contracts the coronavirus.
What are my rights to stand down workers?
Businesses, including restaurants, bars and beauty salons, have been forced to close or have had the services that they provide substantially reduced as a result lockdown measures ordered by state and federal governments in response to the COVID-19 crisis. In these instances, employers may be able to stand down staff under section 524 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and/or any applicable award or employment contract terms. Great care should be taken in exercising the right to stand down staff, to ensure compliance with the legislation and to avoid possible unfair dismissal claims. Our experienced employment lawyers can give you timely and accurate advice, to enable you to know your rights and to act quickly and flexibly in response to the unfolding crisis.