Coronavirus and its Implications in the Workplace
What is Coronavirus?
Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness where the symptoms can range from a mild cough to pneumonia. The virus can spread person-to-person by close contact with an infectious person or by touching objects or surfaces that have come into contact with an infected person.
The World Health Organisation has declared the outbreak of Coronavirus as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
It is extremely important that employers consider the potential effects that Coronavirus may have in the workplace.
How will Coronavirus affect my business?
The outbreak of Coronavirus is having an adverse impact on the global economy. Consequently, businesses operating in Australia who rely on supply of inventory from China or other Asian countries may be affected.
Further, many people may be reluctant to spend time outside of their regular routine due to risk of exposing themselves to the virus. This may impact on some businesses, particularly those in the service and tourism industries.
What about managing my employees?
Can I refuse annual leave?
The Australian Government has supported the recommendations to maintain strict travel limitations. These limitations have now been extended to 6th March 2020. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have advised that increased risk of catching the virus exists in Northern Italy, Iran, Japan and South Korea and that traveling to China is not recommended. Updated information can be sourced from www.smarttraveller.gov.au.
It is likely some employees already have approved annual leave in place for overseas holidays. Section 88 of Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) provides that an employee may take annual leave for a period agreed between an employee and their employer. Generally speaking an employer does not have the right to cancel an employee’s annual leave previously approved. The employer may request that the employee consider postponing, adjusting or cancelling their annual leave; however, the decision can only be made by mutual agreement between the employer and employee. Employers should consult their enterprise agreements, leave policies and employment contracts to check whether a more specific provision applies in the circumstances. Public sector employees are likely to be covered by separate provisions.
What are the quarantine requirements?
Australian Government Department of Health Recommended Quarantine Guidelines:
- Individuals, who have left or transited through mainland China in the last 14 days, must isolate for 14 days from the date of leaving mainland China
- Individuals, who have transited through Iran on or after 1 March must isolate for 14 days from the date of leaving Iran
- Individuals, who have been in close contact with a proven case of Coronavirus, must isolate for 14 days from the date of last contact with the confirmed case.
- Individuals, who are returning from mainland China, Iran, Italy or South Korea should monitor their health for the following 14 days from arrival; state and territory health authorities are testing anyone who show symptoms of the virus
An employee who has travelled overseas and is unable to attend work or is required to be quarantined for 14 days due to the virus must inform their employer.
The Fair Work Act does not have specific rules in dealings with situations such as the Coronavirus, leaving the employer and employee to make their own arrangements. The Fair Work Ombudsman suggests that it would be appropriate for the employee to access leave such as:
- Sick leave where the employee is sick
- Annual leave
- Other leave that may be available such as long service leave
- Any other paid or unpaid leave by arrangement between the employee and employer
My employees want to stay home – what do I do?
If an employee requests to stay home as a preventative measure to avoid exposure to coronavirus, they can request to work from home where appropriate or can request to take paid or unpaid leave such as annual leave.
We recommend that employees seek advice from medical professionals regarding their potential risk of contracting Coronavirus in making their decision.
Can I request that employees stay home?
Both employers and employees have responsibilities under work health and safety laws to ensure safety in the workplace. Employers are obliged to provide and maintain a workplace environment that poses no risk to health and safety. Where an employee is at risk of infection, for example by having recently travelled through mainland China or Iran; or has been in contact with someone with the virus, the employer can request the employee to obtain a medical clearance and to work from home where possible or to not work during the recommended 14 day isolation period established by the Department of Health.
It is important to note that where an employer directs an employee not to work, the employee would normally be entitled to paid leave. Under the Fair Work Act, employees may only be stood down without pay where they cannot do productive work due to equipment break down, industrial action or stoppage of work the employer is not responsible for such as natural disasters. Therefore, the procedure in enforcing an employee to stand down without pay is subject to the applicable enterprise agreement, award, contract of employment and policies in place for each workplace.