Reporting about the spread of COVID-19 over the past few days has causedincreased anxiety for many organisations and their employees. It is timely toreview your planning and consider how you might respond if the situation inAustralia changes, and how you might respond to questions from your staff. Wehave addressed some of the issues you might be thinking about below.

Current Status

The World Health Organisation ( WHO ) is still advising that the chance ofinfection is ‘currently low’ if you are not in an area where COVID-19 isspreading, have not travelled to those areas nor had contact with someone whohas been in those areas. We recommend that employers monitor the WHO websiteand the Department of Health website for up to date information.

Do you have a plan?

Employers should already have a Pandemic or Infectious Diseases plan settingout how they will address safety and operations in the event of a significantoutbreak. You should be reviewing this policy to ensure it meets your currentneeds. If you do not have a policy in place, you should consider preparing onebefore you need it.

Should you provide information to employees?

Employees may be anxious about the risk of a pandemic, and could havequestions about what will happen to their working arrangements and employment.

Employers have a duty under WHS/OHS legislation to provide information toemployees about health and safety in the workplace. You should provide regularupdates to employees about the status of COVID-19 that are consistent withinformation provided by the Department of Health and WHO.

Information updates from employers should promote a culture of respect andunderstanding amongst employees and avoid creating an environment of fear anddiscrimination. Employees should also be encouraged to ask questions and shareinformation about their concerns.

Safety regulators in Australia have all published guidance material foremployer responses to influenza pandemics generally and we recommend that youfamiliarise yourself with the guidance material in your jurisdiction. As anexample, WorkSafe Victoria provides useful and practical guidance on thisissue which can be found here.

We recommend that you provide updates to employees addressing:

  • the current status of the virus in Australia (to dispel any myths); and
  • advice on good hygiene practices for work and home.

You might also be asked about whether employees will be stood down and/or paidin the event of a pandemic. You should understand your legal obligations andentitlements and consider what you can say at this time, given that nopandemic has been declared.

Health and Safety at work – what do we recommend?

Employers have a duty to eliminate or reduce risks and hazards at work,monitor the health of employees and monitor the conditions at any workplaceunder their management and control. Given these duties we recommend thefollowing:

General hygiene precautions – time for a reminder

Employers should remind employees and others entering their workplaces of theimportance of high personal hygiene standards which are vital to protectagainst the spread of infection.

You should:

  • Display signage reminding people to wash their hands regularly and thoroughly. The WHO provides clear advice on hand washing that you may find useful – “Clean hands protect against infection”. A quick splash of water will not do the job.
  • Consider installing hand sanitiser dispensers in bathrooms, meeting rooms and high pedestrian traffic areas such as reception areas.
  • Remind employees that they should not present at work if they are unwell, and they should sneeze or cough into their elbows and not their hands. Employees who share equipment such as phones or laptops should wipe down this equipment with a sanitising wipe after use.

What about employees who have been in affected areas or who might becontagious?

We recommend that employers ask their employees to notify them immediately, ifthey:

  • have travelled to an affected area since the beginning of 2020; and/or
  • are suffering, or have suffered, flu-like symptoms since the virus was first detected.

If the answer to either of these questions is yes, employers should respondaccording to their Pandemic Plan. This should provide that if an employee ispotentially infected and therefore contagious (for example, they have informedyou they have been in close contact with someone who has the virus), you candirect them not to attend work during the risk period. You should ask them toseek medical advice and a clearance before returning to work. Employees wouldordinarily be entitled to be paid while subject to such a direction. You mayconsider whether employees in this situation are able to work from home duringthis time.

Do you need to revisit international travel?

Employers should consider whether any scheduled international business travelis necessary in the current environment. It may be that other communicationoptions will suffice.

You should also review your insurance coverage for upcoming travel. Insurershave set 21 January 2020 as the cut-off date for COVID-19 related claims,being the date when the virus became a ‘known event’ for insurance purposes.

What are you asking clients and visitors to do?

Many of our clients are displaying COVID-19 information material in theirreception areas, and/or in email footers that is consistent with guidancecoming from the WHO. We suggest you consider this approach to indicate toclients and customers that you have expectations about what they should dowhile in your workplace.

Are there pockets of fear causing poor behaviour in your organisation?

Fear may also cause some employees to behave inappropriately to colleagues orclients who have recently returned from overseas or who have family overseas.You should monitor this and intervene where necessary to remind employees oftheir obligations to behave respectfully towards others at work.

What are your obligations if employees are unable to work?

If the situation worsens, employers may need to consider their obligations foreach of the scenarios below. We recommend checking your Pandemic Policy toensure it meets your needs.

The Fair Work Act 2009 provides that employers have a right to stand downemployees in certain circumstances. Modern awards, enterprise agreements oremployment contracts may also contain stand down provisions and generally suchperiods are unpaid.

What if your employee can’t attend work because they have or are suspectedof having COVID-19 or they are caring for someone in this situation?

In the first instance, employees should use their paid personal/carer’s leaveentitlements. If these are exhausted, your employees might wish to considerother alternatives, such as taking annual leave or leave without pay.Employers should request medical clearance prior to an employee returning towork.

What if your employee is quarantined, or unable to return from overseas?

Consider whether the employee can access their paid personal/carer’s leaveentitlements or annual leave. You may decide that employees can take otherpaid or unpaid leave. We recommend a consistent approach taking into accountyour operational needs. If multiple quarantine events have the effect ofcreating a stoppage of work the stand down provisions referred to above mayapply.

What if your employees want to stay at home as a precaution?

Employees will need to request to work from home or to take some form of paidor unpaid leave. You should treat these requests as you would treat otherapplications for this type of leave.

What if your operational needs change because of a downturn or supply-chainissues?

The Fair Work Act stand down provisions are likely to apply, subject to anyprovisions in your employment arrangements, meaning that employees may not bepaid. You should consider this issue carefully, including budget impact, ifyou nevertheless intend to pay employees during any stand down. You shouldalso consider a communication plan if a stand down becomes necessary, andobtain advice if uncertain of your obligations.

Working from home – what to check

You are likely to have a working from home policy or procedure in place. Youshould check that it meets your needs if employees are subject to quarantine.It is timely to review your IT Systems and business continuity arrangements toensure the business can continue to operate if a large number of employeesneed to access IT systems remotely.

A reminder – you need to consult

Coronavirus/COVID-19: What should Australian employers be thinking about?Youshould remember that you have obligations to consult on health and safetymatters, including in relation to changes you put in place. For many employersa failure to do so may be a breach of your WHS/OHS Act responsibilities.

Source: Cath eri ne Dunlop, Dale McQualter, Gerard Twomey –Maddocks

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