COVID-19 - Key issues Employers need to consider
Below are some of the issues that Employers will need to consider during this time.
Stand down provisions
The Fair Work Act contains stand down provisions allowing an employer to stand down an employee if the employee cannot be usefully employed due to a stoppage of work for a cause the employer cannot be held reasonably responsible.
Employers may be able to utilise the stand down provisions in circumstances where Government directives close all or part of the business, or where there are direct consequences for a business as a result of Government directives to clients of the business (supply chains and clear associated contractual relationships) which result in a stoppage of work. There may also be other circumstances where the stand down provisions can be used. Stand down provisions need to be carefully assessed on a case by case basis and employers must also consider all relevant industrial instruments such as awards, enterprise agreements and contracts of employment which may set out additional requirements.
The stand down provisions can be technically difficult to interpret when applying them to the effects of COVID-19 on a workplace. Accordingly, legal advice is essential.
Employers should assess their business for a potential general lockdown and the consequential potential use of the stand down provisions, including the flow on implications to employees.
You may also be interested in our alert on accrual of leave, access to leave entitlements and payment of public holidays during a stand down which can be accessed here.
Working from home
Directing or agreeing with an employee to work from home is an effective way to implement social distancing in the workplace and/or to relocate employees who can continue to be usefully employed if your business is required to shut down.
In accordance with the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld), employers are required to ensure a safe work environment for employees, including working from home environments. Employers are obliged to ensure a documented risk assessment is conducted of the proposed work environment in the employee’s home. Having a Working from Home Policy in these instances can always assist. If you do not already have a Working from Home Policy we recommend that you put one in place if your workplace, or some of your employees, are, or will eventually be, working from home. At Aitken Legal we are assisting clients with a policy that includes a self-risk assessment checklist for the employee to complete.
Employers must also take out an accident insurance policy with WorkCover Queensland where they are having employees working from home.
The Federal Government has introduced a subsidy program to support both employees and businesses due to the impact of the Coronavirus crisis.
The Government, through the ATO, will provide eligible employers a fortnightly payment of $1,500 per eligible employee from 30 March 2020, for a maximum period of 6 months.
For more information on the JobKeeper scheme, see our most recent alert here.
Temporary changes to most Awards
The Fair Work Commission has made temporary changes to Awards in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For further information on these changes, see alert #7 on our COVID-19 alerts page here.
Workplace Health & Safety
All employers have an ongoing obligation to do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of employees and others in their workplace. As mentioned above, this obligation continues where employees are working from home.
Employers should ensure that all employees who are sick, or who are required to self-isolate for any reason, do not attend the workplace.
Where employees continue to attend the workplace, employers have an obligation to put in place measures for social distancing and hygiene and to remove or manage any risks so as not to expose employees unnecessarily to the risk of contracting COVID-19.
Safe Work Australia has specific advice for employers regarding COVID-19. This information and guidance tool can be accessed at www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au.
Annual and long service leave entitlements
Employers and employees may agree that the employee can take some or all of their accrued entitlement to annual leave or long service leave (‘leave entitlements’). An employer must not direct an employee to take leave entitlements unless it is done in compliance with threshold requirements and notice provisions in the relevant industrial instrument or contract of employment. Many of these threshold requirements or notice provisions require legal advice so employers should not hesitate to seek that advice.