Preparing for COVID-19

11 March 2020

The situation in relation to COVID-19 is changing rapidly. We encourage all ACA members to show leadership within their practice, to understand their obligations as employers and business owners, and to plan ahead for potential disruption as much as possible.

Now is the time to demonstrate your leadership skills! This includes understanding your legal obligations, but it is much more than that. It is essential to maintain open communication lines with employees. Be very careful not to discriminate – make fair and equitable decisions on a case-by-case basis, display empathy and be diplomatic. Now is the time to ensure you have sufficient flexible working arrangements in place, such as remote work and/or the use of technology for collaboration. Make sure your systems work and everyone who needs them has access and knows how they work.

Contingency planning and business continuity strategies are also now a priority for employers. 

The ACA provides a round-up of useful resources and information that will help navigate these uncertain times.

Work Heath and Safety

Safe Work Australia Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advice for PCBUs

Under work health and safety laws, those operating businesses are required to ensure the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace (as far as is reasonably practical). Workers also have responsibilities under those laws.

Safe Work Australia provides an overview for businesses about managing risk, along with links to relevant content on other government websites.

Australian Government Department of Health 

The Department of Health has an information sheet for employers, which should be read in conjunction with the wider information, including guidance on isolation.

Employer Obligations

Fair Work Ombudsman

The Fair Work Ombudsman has a useful round-up of advice for employers, which is being regularly updated. This covers sick and carer’s leave and quarantine, along with workplace health and safety.

This notes that the Fair Work Act does not have specific rules for situations in which employees are unable to attend work due to quarantine, or being stuck overseas. Employees and employers need to come to arrangements between themselves. This may include:

  • taking sick leave if the employee is sick
  • taking annual leave
  • taking any other leave available to them (such as long service leave or any other leave available under an award, enterprise agreement or contract of employment)
  • arranging any other paid or unpaid leave by agreement between the employee and the employer.

The ACA encourages employers to work with employees to identify a solution that acknowledges and engages with the needs and difficulties faced by all parties.

The Fair Work Ombudsman content includes important guidance for employers that want their staff to stay home.

Where an employer directs a full-time or part-time employee not to work, the employee would ordinarily be entitled to be paid while subject to the direction. You should consider your obligations under any applicable enterprise agreement, award, employees’ contracts of employment, and workplace policies.

Under the Fair Work Act, an employee can only be stood down without pay if they can’t do useful work because of equipment break down, industrial action or a stoppage of work for which the employer can’t be held responsible. The most common scenarios are severe and inclement weather or natural disasters. Enterprise agreements and employment contracts can have different or extra rules about when an employer can stand down an employee without pay.

The Fair Work Ombudsman also points out that employers need to be aware of  the range of legal obligations, and that includes those relating to anti-discrimination.

Workplace Culture and Management

Businesses also need to consider the impact of the virus on the company and employees beyond their legal obligations.

The World Health Organization has published a factsheet ‘Getting Your Workplace Ready for COVID-19. This includes information on prevention, travel and preparing your business.

Maddocks Lawyers has prepared a helpful overview, which includes information about communication, consultation and company culture, as well as legal obligations.

Employment Hero has an overview that includes checklists for employers and employees, along with information about supporting remote work.

Planning and Policy

Now is the time to review or develop those policies that will help guide action if and when things become difficult. This includes a Business Continuity Plan and a Pandemic or Infectious Diseases Plan.

The federal government and state governments provide information on business continuity planning:

Australian Government – When things don’t go to plan

Queensland Government – Business Continuity Planning

Tasmanian Government – Preparing your business for natural disasters

South Australian Government – Preparing a business continuity plan

Business Victoria – Business Continuity Plan

Western Australian Government – Business continuity planning checklist