Six recommendations for employers dealing with the coronavirus outbreak

The coronavirus outbreak is causing alarm and anxiety worldwide. It need not. However, it seems inevitable that your workplace will be affected by the virus at some point, either directly or indirectly.

As the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Director General remarked on 3 March 2020, “COVID-19 spreads less efficiently than flu, transmission does not appear to be driven by people who are not sick, it causes more severe illness than flu, there are not yet any vaccines or therapeutics, and it can be contained – which is why we must do everything we can to contain it. That’s why WHO recommends a comprehensive approach”.

As an employer, if you have not yet done so, it is time to develop a comprehensive approach to COVID-19 and future epidemics. This requires at the least, a review of your company’s strategy, policies, and procedures regarding the potential impact on your workforce, and an understanding of your obligations if employees are unable to attend the workplace. At the end of this Insight is a quick guide for your reference.

Here, we discuss the duties of employers during public health outbreaks, as well as provide six recommendations for companies and HR managers preparing for the impact of coronavirus.

  1. Understand the risk to your workplace

As with any business continuity risk, the spread of COVID-19 is a pertinent reminder of the importance of understanding how your business might be impacted if a significant number of workers (whether employees or contractors) were unable to attend the workplace.  Does your business have multiple people trained in critical functions to ensure continuity?  Do you have a contingency plan if a large number of employees in a particular part of the business were unable to attend work?

With that said, be alert, not alarmed.  Monitor the Department of Health website for up to date information about travel restrictions and situations in which isolation is recommended.  There is no need for broad isolation of workers who do not fall within the risk categories identified by the WHO and Department of Health.

  1. Work from home

Depending on your location and the spread of COVID-19, your business may need to ask employees to work from home, or your employees may ask to work from home.  Before this strategy is actioned, you should assess whether employees are set up effectively to work from home.

Whether this is requesting all employees apply ahead of time to work from home, allowing meetings to be held via videoconferencing or increasing employees’ flexibility for remote work, reducing face-to-face contact is an excellent measure to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.  With this however, comes a raft of practical implications to consider.

It may be for instance that at present only some staff have the technological capacity to work remotely.  Considering what is needed to expand this capacity will involve consideration of available technology, cost factors and work, health and safety implications.  How will the business manage the increase in demand to ensure workers’ home environments are adequate and safe?  What directions or policies need to be implemented in addition to any existing processes to facilitate a larger portion of your workforce working remotely?

  1. Clean clean clean!

The routine cleaning of the workplace should be increased where needed.  It is recommended that all frequently touched surfaces such as workstations, desks and doorknobs be routinely and thoroughly cleaned. Have a discussion with your Company’s cleaning contractors to ensure they are following recommended Department of Health protocols.

As COVID-19 is spread most readily from coughing or sneezing, increased cleaning of common areas may decrease the possibility of infection.  Similarly, workers should be educated and reminded of the need for them to maintain strict hygiene standards.

  1. Formalise your processes

It is now time to formalise your processes for requiring employees to remain off work if they have been affected by the virus or have travelled to virus affected areas.  This formalisation should include requirements for employees to advise if they have travelled to affected areas or if they have been in contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19.

Full time and part time employees who are required to be quarantined would likely be entitled to access any accrued paid personal or sick leave.  Once this entitlement is exhausted, then they may be able to access other forms of paid leave or unpaid leave.

Where an employee requests to stay off work, they will need to make a request to work from home or take some form of paid or unpaid leave.  These requests should be subject to your normal leave application processes. It may be necessary to clarify the company’s policy in instances where the company directs staff to not attend work.  The capacity to stand employees down without pay under the Fair Work Act and under enterprise agreements will only arise where there is an absence of useful work for employees to perform, and not where an employee is not ready, willing or able to attend to work because of COVID-19.

In activating relevant procedures, care should be taken to ensure that workplace leaders responses to employees affected, or potentially affected, by COVID-19 do not contravene anti-discrimination legislation.

  1. Monitor travel requirements

It is strongly recommended the companies limit employee business travel to areas where COVID-19 is present.  Not only will this protect your employees’ safety, but it will also prevent loss of productivity due to quarantine or employee exclusion from the workplace after travel.

  1. Train your supervisors

Lastly, we recommend your business consider training supervisors on the implications of COVID-19 and providing them with ongoing information updates as appropriate to ensure consistency of messaging, and avoidance of unnecessary panic.  In particular, workplace leaders should have access to information on infection control and other measures that may or may not be being taken by the company, and should know who to contact within the company to report exposure to the virus.

Your employees may be concerned about COVID-19 and its impact on their health and the health of the business.  This could have varying impacts on mental health and wellbeing.  One of the best strategies for mitigating against these potential impacts is to ensure that employees are well informed about the potential impact of COVID-19 upon them, and are taking appropriate and proportionate steps to protect themselves from risk of infection.

Businesses need to be as best prepared as they can be in the face of COVID-19, and these 6 recommendations are only the starting point.

Should this article have raised any concerns for you, we invite you to contact Kingston Reid for further advice.

 

Christa Lenard
Partner
+61 2 9169 8404
christa.lenard@kingstonreid.com

George Stent
Paralegal