By John Tuck, Firm: Paul Burns

As coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread across the globe, employers are grappling with how best to protect and manage their employees in these very unusual circumstances. This article highlights the key issues, with a link to a detailed guide to employment and safety questions around the coronavirus outbreak.

Download a detailed guide to managing employment, safety and labour issues during the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak in Australia by clicking here then clicking the DOWNLOAD PDF button to the right of the page.

In addition to business continuity issues that demand attention such as supply shortages, disclosure requirements and liquidity: employers are contemplating a myriad of employment, safety and labour issues: are our policies on leave and flexible working adequate? Do we need to provide everyone with personal safety gear? If someone refuses to come to work, what can we do?

Acknowledging that containing the epidemic and protecting people is the priority, this article addresses the employment issues that both private and public sector employers are likely to confront against a challenging backdrop of uncertainty.

Key issues

  • Employers need to be on top of the latest health information being provided by the relevant health departments. Events are unfolding quickly and employers’ intelligence needs to be updated to reflect the available public health advice.
  • Eliminating or minimising risks to safety, as far as is practicable, is vital. Employers should assess the risks and consider the available controls. Employers in high-risk industries will need to go further in assessing their policies and the provision and use of appropriate personal protective equipment.
  • Policies on leave and flexible work practices will be tested. Employers may not have policies in place that are capable of responding to significant disruption to business and staff operations.
  • Employers should consider personal leave in the context of COVID-19 and may wish to develop policies to address whether employees who are required to be isolated or quarantined are entitled to special consideration.
  • Managing business continuity requires employers to be across their policies on flexible working. The IT capability and support mechanisms for working remotely over extended periods should be reviewed and tested. 
  • In a highly anxious environment, employers should consider how they can support the wellbeing of their employees.
  • Employers should be mindful to ensure there is no breach of anti-discrimination laws when putting plans into effect. Increased discrimination has emerged amidst the anxiety surrounding the virus, and employers should be aware that conduct may be unlawful even if it arises from a genuinely held fear about the virus. 
  • Companies should also look at worst-case scenarios and develop contingency strategies to manage operating costs and protect the business in the long term. In this volatile environment, employers should be prepared to adapt by implementing prepared response plans.
  • With respect to travel, employers will need to make their expectations clear. It is reasonable for employers to inform employees to exercise caution when making non-work related travel plans and to remind employees to seek medical advice if they feel unwell when returning from travel. For work-related travel, employers should carefully assess the risk of such travel, particularly sending employees overseas, even for critical meetings.