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COVID-19 - Employer Obligations

During this time of uncertainty there is understandable anxiety and concern about the implications of Covid-19 on many fronts. This is certainly the case for many employers and employees across the country.

We are seeing some excellent examples of employers implementing pandemic plans to keep things flowing for their business and their staff. We have seen employers going above and beyond for their employees and adapting to this unique situation. When considering solutions, understanding the legal rights and obligations is important. 

Generally speaking, what should employers be doing at this time?

Employers have a lot to work through to protect the health and wellbeing of their staff (as well as other persons within their workplace).  Employers must take this pandemic seriously and manage all risks that COVID-19 poses to employee health – both physical and mental.  Employers should:

  • Have a pandemic plan or COVID-19 strategy in place for the workplace;
  • Be familiar with, and constantly monitoring, Government directives and guidelines;
  • Complete an assessment of employee health, leave entitlements and ability to work from home;
  • Look closely at policies around working remotely, including the health and safety implications of this. Employers are responsible for the health and safety of their employees while at work, and this will extend to wherever work is being carried out; and
  • Communicate key messages and actions - not to spread panic or create concern, but to provide certainty and security.

On the flipside, employees need to play their part by complying with those reasonable guidelines and instructions from an employer.  In particular, employees should be sensible when it comes to their health and protecting others through physical distancing and good hygiene.

How do you manage leave for self-isolation cases?

Employees who have been told to self-isolate under Ministry of Health guidelines (for example, after a period of overseas travel) cannot come into work. 

During a period of self-isolation, if an employee can work from home and wishes to do so, then the employee can do so and receive their ordinary pay.  If an employee cannot feasibly work from home, the employer should consider paying the employee paid special leave, or another form of leave as agreed between the employer and employee.  We would recommend that, in the current circumstances, employers make all efforts to enable staff to safely work remotely if it is reasonably practicable.  This is certainly the case for those who may be immune-compromised or elderly.

What about leave and travel requests?

If an employee wishes to take leave or travel (to the extent possible), the employer may refuse the annual leave request.  Alternatively, if leave or travel is approved there will need to be discussions around what will happen during any period of mandatory self-isolation.  Options could include the employee taking paid annual or special leave, unpaid leave, working from home, or a combination of these.  The above options will depend on whether the employee can feasibly work from home, and what leave the employee has available.  In the absence of an arrangement, the period of self-isolation will become unpaid leave.

How do we manage potential business closures?

If we reach the point where the Government requires the physical closure of certain businesses, where all employees must stay home, an employer may consider a closedown period to all, or parts of, their business, if:

  • COVID-19 has detrimentally affected an employer’s operations; and/or
  • There is a risk of general infection in the workplace; and/or
  • The business is cannot operate effectively due to absences.

The Government has announced a support package to assist employers/employees that meet certain criteria through the pandemic.  Details can be found online – here.

Where employees can work remotely and avoid using leave entitlements, we would encourage that to happen, in line with the Government guidelines.  By working with staff, ensuring proper preparation and resourcing, and maintaining communications, more employers will be able to continue to operate in some way through this difficult time and without needing to resort to restructures and/or redundancies.

Remembering what’s important

An employer’s focus is to look after employees and the wider working environment.  This means ensuring they understand all health and safety obligations and legal issues when it comes to managing leave arrangements for employees when required.  Of course, at a very practical and human level, employers should be mindful of how their employees may be feeling in this unique situation and avoid unnecessary anxiety by continuing to communicate internal protocols and steps being taken when it comes to COVID-19.

If you need assistance on how to manage any of the employment issues that are arising, and changing, on a daily basis during this time, please contact Renika Siciliano or Jerome Burgess.

Renika is a Director and leads our Workplace Law Team. She can be contacted on 07 958 7429.

Jerome is an Associate in our Workplace Law Team and can be contacted on 07 958 7427.

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