The Employment Practicalities of a Return to Work

The Employment Practicalities of a Return to Work

* Last Updated 14 April 2020

While we wait for confirmation on when the Alert Level will drop from 4 to 3, and what restrictions will be in place at Level 3, now is the time to draft your plans. Here we cover some of the key issues to consider right now, as well as the communication process to follow.

 

High Risk Employees

At both alert level 2 and 3, high risk people are advised to stay at home. ‘High risk’ includes employees over 70 and anyone with a pre-existing medical condition including:

  • Serious respiratory disease such as chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
  • Serious heart conditions
  • Immunocompromised conditions, including cancer treatment, smoking-related illness, bone marrow or organ transplantation, prolonged use of immune weakening medications, such as anti-rheumatic drugs and cortisteroids
  • Severe obesity — a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • People undergoing dialysis
  • Liver disease
  • Pregnant women may also be at a higher risk, and caution is advised for this group as well

As many of these conditions are common, most workplaces will have a group of employees that fall into this category. We recommend identifying these employees early, so you can plan for a reduced workforce and consult with this group so they know what it means for them.

 

Different Alert Levels have Different Impacts on Different Roles

In addition, there are specific jobs/roles that will be impacted by the restrictions at these lower alert levels:

  • At level 3 some businesses will be required to remain partially or fully closed. This may mean parts of your operation and team are up and running, but other parts are not
  • At level 2 there is a request to limit non-essential national travel, at level 3 this is likely to be further restricted although we’re waiting on additional detail. Some roles (for example regional sales roles) involve regular travel that may not be deemed ‘essential’ and will therefore be impacted by these restrictions
  • Restrictions and/or bans on gatherings will continue at level 2 and 3. Some roles (for example training and events) involve organising and running gatherings and will therefore still be impacted at alert level 2 and 3
  • Even at level 2, there is a ‘request’ to continue with alternate ways of working where possible (i.e. working from home). At level 3, this will likely be ‘required’ in many cases. For some workers whose jobs allow for remote work, this may not be possible due to not having a suitable workspace in their home environment.
  • At level 3 (and possibly level 2), some schools and pre-schools will remain or be closed, impacting some employees’ ability to return to work and/or work from home
  • Many businesses are likely to have reduced workflow – depending on the nature of your business, this is likely to impact some roles more than others
  • Physical distancing requirements are also likely to impact some or all positions – you may need to make significant changes to hours and/or stagger shifts to accommodate the distancing requirements
  • PPE requests and requirements – depending on the nature of your work, some roles may require PPE. You will need to ensure that there is enough available for all that require it and that this supply is maintained. If this is not possible initially, it could lead to shift cancellations and roster changes for some roles
  • There will be more work for some roles/areas of many businesses – for example, Health and Safety reporting and work

 

Being Fair and Equitable

So how do you manage things fairly when some of your team can return to work and others cannot? Or where for some roles you have sufficient work but not for others?

Every business is different and so is every employee and every unique role within your business. There will be no one-size fits all, but you must be fair, reasonable and, as always, operate in good faith.

We suggest at this stage, you go through each employees details and consider for both alert level 2 and 3 and for any possible future periods at alert level 4:

  • Can they return to the workplace?
  • Can they work from home for some or all of their hours?
  • If they can recommence work, either from home or in the workplace, will their current hours and role responsibilities be appropriate?
  • Could an employee with low/no workload be redeployed or given additional/different responsibilities?
  • If they cannot return to work and cannot work from home at one or more of the alert levels, what should they be paid during that period?

 

Communicate, Consult, Communicate Again

Once you’ve drafted up the proposed plan for each position at each alert level, it’s time to put this to the employee and ask for their feedback. Remember, with any change in terms and conditions (even if only temporary) you will ideally want written agreement. If this cannot be achieved, ensure you can document your process.

 

Document Your Process

In most cases we recommend issuing a consultation letter with a feedback/agreement form that the employee returns signed to you, followed by a confirmation letter. You should write into this confirmation letter when the arrangement will be reviewed or, alternatively, you may include the plan for each alert level and simply review that when the alert level is dropped to 1 or below.

 

Dealing with the Exceptions

Ideally, you will be treating people in similar roles and situations in the same way. For example, you could decide that all those that must stay home and can’t work are paid the wage subsidy only, all those that can do limited work from home are paid 80% of normal earnings. Those that return to work or can work from home full-time are paid 100% of normal earnings.

However, it is important to be prepared to make exceptions in response to information received in the feedback stage. It is likely that you will face some challenges and need to make changes as a result. This is OK and demonstrates that you are meeting your obligations to consult in good faith. You will not always be able to share with other employees the exact circumstances and reasons that one employee has a different arrangement to others – unless you obtain the employees permission to do so. However, if you have treated everyone fairly throughout you will be able to stand by your decision knowing that you have been fair and reasonable if challenged.

 

Fair treatment is a non-negotiable and always enhances the culture in a business.

 

Positive People can help you work through the employment practicalities of the coming weeks and months. Email us at info@positivepeople.co.nz or call 09 445 1077.

Managing Mental Health and Wellness Concerns

Managing Mental Health and Wellness Concerns

* Last Updated 14 April 2020

 

Supporting employees with mental health and wellbeing has been an increasing concern for employers over recent years. However, the Covid-19 crisis has had a huge impact on every single one of us – in the form of varying degrees of increased stress, anxiety and financial worries. In addition, those with mental health problems and/or addiction issues may be finding themselves struggling with these pre-existing problems given the added pressures and uncertainties of the Covid-19 environment.

Fortunately, the government has recognised the scale of this issue and has allocated additional funding to mental health support and wellbeing initiatives.

 

If you or one of your team feel that you’re not coping, you can call or text 1737 – free, anytime, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – to talk with a trained counsellor.  

 

Visit the mental health section of the  Covid-19 website for more information https://covid19.govt.nz/individuals-and-households/health-and-wellbeing/looking-after-your-mental-wellbeing/

 

The Covid-19 crisis may also lead to increased financial distress and worry, addiction issues or family violence. For these issues specifically:

  • https://sorted.org.nz/ has a range of financial tools, resources and information or for personalised support contact MoneyTalks on 0800 345 123 help@moneytalks.co.nz, or text 4029
  • Alcohol Drug Helpline – 0800 787 797 or text 8681 for a free and confidential chat with a trained counsellor, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
  • Family Violence Information Line – 0800 456 450 for information as well as services in your own region. The phoneline operates 9am – 11pm every day of the year

 

Finally, we recommend all employers consider implementing a Mental Health and Wellness Programme. This doesn’t need to be a costly exercise. Make a start with a policy and a set of guidelines that assist in building a workplace that supports mental health and wellbeing by:

  • Increasing employee knowledge and awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues
  • Linking managers to practical resources to support them in working through problems that arise due to a mental health issue with one of their team members
  • Providing a list of support agencies and their contact details that managers can refer to when someone presents with a mental health problem
  • Outlining the considerations and providing a plan for return-to-work after time off due to a mental health problem
  • Setting the expectation that all employees and managers will normalise the conversation and reduce stigma around mental health problems in the workplace

 

Positive People can help you to write your own mental health and wellness policy and guidelines, build a programme or support you in working through individual employee problems and concerns. Email us info@positivepeople.co.nz or call 09 445 1077.

Re-engagement & Culture Re-Set

Re-engagement & Culture Re-Set

* Last Updated 14 April 2020

 

Just three weeks into the lockdown and already, looking at pictures from the summer holiday season, it feels a bit strange. Images of group gatherings, arms around each other for photos, shared plates at big family dinners, perhaps an overseas trip if we were lucky…. While we long for these things to return, at the moment, they seem far off.

 

When will we be able to enjoy this life again? And when we can, how will it feel?

 

Applying this to work, after constant messages of “Stay home, stay safe, save lives”, venturing back into the workplace for those not in essential services will create all sorts of emotions. These may range from happiness and excitement for some, through to fear for others, and everything in between. In fact, we’re each likely to experience a whole range of feelings when we finally get the green light to leave our bubbles.

It’s for this reason that managers need to start thinking about how to re-integrate your team and build a culture that can thrive in the ‘new normal’ of life post-lockdown. In addition to this, given that we’ll likely be going to alert level 3, it is just not on the cards that a day after lockdown we will all return to our desks and carry on back at work as normal.

 

So, how can you build or re-build your company culture in an environment of social distance, remote work, staggered shifts, recessionary conditions and uncertainty?

 

We’re not going to pretend this isn’t a big ask. To keep it simple we’ve listed some ideas – hopefully these stimulate some thought and discussion that will lead to the starting point that works for you.

  • Accept that it might take some time and that people will be working through things at different paces. Talk to the team about this – communicate, communicate, communicate. Book extra team meetings (likely to be remote) and one-on-ones. Stick to these as a commitment to check in on your team and keep your finger on the pulse with how everyone is going and feeling.
  • Involve the team in brainstorming and implementing different processes and approaches that support the ‘new normal’. Make it everyone’s responsibility to generate the solutions to overcome the barriers we will face post-lockdown
  • All good managers put the health and safety of the team at the front and centre of their decisions. However, sometimes we can forget to communicate this, leaving employees in doubt. Emphasise to everyone that their health and safety is the most important thing and is your priority, and that it is informing every decision you make. Back this up with your actions. Get their help with assessing Covid-19 associated risks and implementing measures to eliminate, isolate and minimise. If you don’t already have a health and safety committee and a Covid-19 co-ordinator (usually a senior manager), now is the time to appoint them
  • Use the ‘Be Kind’ mantra – or create something similar for yourself. The Government’s use of this kind of cornerstone value is a masterclass in building culture and steering people through a period of change. It can be used to praise the actions of people and positively reinforce the right behaviours – a weekly ‘Kindness is Cool’ award, a chalkboard where people write up examples as they happen, etc.  A value or mantra like this can also be used to call out actions that don’t align with your culture. It’s a useful way to start a coaching conversation with an employee and sets a clear expectation that applies to everyone.
  • Create some common and individual goals. If you don’t already have a performance management appraisal process in place, look at implementing something simple and effective. Goals help to keep people motivated and on the same page. They also drive productivity and high performance, which will be more important than ever before.
  • Revisit your vision, mission and strategic plan and share them with the team. Ensure all of your communications align and reinforce this future direction. Now is the time to lead from the front, alongside AND to get behind your team so they know you have their backs. How you lead your staff through this crisis will be remembered, and in getting it right you will be rewarded for years to come. Consider finding a mentor to act as a sounding board and confidante.
  • Keep positive – look at this as an opportunity to create a new and improved Company Culture. Or if you have an awesome Company Culture in place, now is it’s time to shine. More often than not, adversity brings people together. You will see relationships strengthen, team members going the extra mile and it will all help the bottom line.
  • Finally, look for bright spots and share them with the team. Celebrate success any way you can (Team Quiz via Zoom?). Traditional social activities may be too expensive and not even possible at this time, so get creative – or delegate to those team members who are social butterflies!

Positive People have over 25 years’ experience in helping businesses build or improve their Company Culture. Email us at info@positivepeople.co.nz or call 09 445 1077.

Workforce Planning and the Prospect of Restructuring

Workforce Planning and the Prospect of Restructuring

* Last Updated 14 April 2020

 

Planning

Over the past 4 weeks we have all become somewhat accustomed to constant and rapid change. We’ve learnt pretty quickly to take a step-by-step and day-by-day approach to avoid wasting time and energy on plans that quickly become irrelevant.

 

But, having dealt with the blow of the lockdown, the time has come to get ready to adapt and adapt again. Having contingency plans in place will be essential for you to navigate the next 12-18 months by being nimble and flexible.

 

A good starting point is to map out at least three possible scenarios – perhaps starting with a best case, worst case and a middle ground. These might include:

  • Best case – Level 3 after 4 weeks of lockdown. Reverting to level 2 the following week. No further lockdowns eventuate. Borders remain closed, but non-essential national travel re-starts in June. Government stimulus packages are relatively successful and the economy, including your industry, shows promising signs of recovery.
  • Middle – Lockdown is extended to 6 weeks. The country remains at level 3 for an additional 6 weeks, with some businesses needing to remain closed. National non-essential travel is restricted on and off throughout the year, there are regular school closures and occasionally it looks like another lockdown is possible.
  • Worst case – NZ returns to Level 3 after 4 weeks but it’s too soon or community transmission of Covid-19 has sprung back under the radar. After a few weeks at Level 3, another lockdown is announced and this one continues for another 6 weeks. After that, Level 3 with heavy restrictions for a further 6 weeks. Your business is unable to open properly at Level 3 but can operate to a limited extent on-line, but your industry has been heavily impacted. Sales are virtually non-existent.

Now think through what impact each scenario will have on your workflow and cashflow. Then, how will you need to change or downsize your workforce to match this footprint? What will be the triggers (sales figures, production levels, cashflow) that will force you to look at headcount reduction? Consider how you can avoid ‘death by a thousand cuts’ – where you need to downsize, will it be possible to make a more significant change to avoid constant redundancies and hours reductions.

 

Restructuring

Having completed the planning, you should have a clearer idea of the conditions and thresholds that may necessitate a change process. Or, in some cases, it may be clear that you already need to consider the prospect of restructuring your organisation and reducing your employee numbers. This is a complex and difficult process.

Here is a step-by-step overview of what you will need to do next:

  1. Plan
  • First, you will need to write a business case for why you believe change is required. Include important details such as sales figures and projections.
  • Next, write a communication plan – who is potentially impacted by this proposed change and how will you communicate with them? Individually, team meetings or a company-wide briefing? Will anyone be on leave during this time? How and when will you communicate with them?
  • Finally, get your ducks in a row. Review Individual Employment Agreements, read Job Descriptions, pull payroll information to double check details such as pay, titles and hours. Run a risk assessment for each – is the role you are considering to be disestablished similar to another role in the business? If so, do both employees need to be included in the consultation process as two positions becomes one?

 

  1. Consult
  • Draft up letters for all affected employees. The letter must:
    • Explain the proposed change
    • Outline the proposed impact to their particular role
    • Give the reasons for this proposed change
    • Say what will happen to them if the change goes ahead
    • Include the details for how the employee can submit feedback and the deadline for this
    • Either propose a time for a meeting to hear feedback, or offer the opportunity for the employee to book a meeting if they want to ask questions or provide verbal feedback
    • Emphasise that no decision has been made, and that this won’t happen until you have received their feedback
    • Give details of a proposed timeline. Seek feedback on this as well
  • Hold your consultation meetings.
    • Ideally, where only a small number of people are impacted and redundancy is a possibility you will hold these face-to-face. You can set this meeting up ‘informally’ by simply inviting the employee to a meeting, but we recommend that you let them know that what you need to discuss may impact their role, and that they are welcome to bring a support person – allowing them time to arrange this. In large company-wide restructures, and with the Covid-19 restrictions, this will not always be possible.
    • Ideally, read through the letter
    • Answer initial questions, but try not to get into receiving feedback in this meeting
  • Hold feedback meetings. Often questions will be raised at these meetings. If you don’t know the answer, commit to coming back with it as soon as possible. You must remain open, honest and communicative throughout. If you take too long to respond to questions or do not answer them at all, you risk an argument that the deadline for feedback should be extended.

 

  1. Consider Feedback
  • It is important to consider feedback in good faith. If, as a result of the feedback, you want to make changes to the proposal you need to decide whether to go back and consult on the new proposal.
  • Give yourself time to adequately consider feedback – usually 48 hours
  • If you’ve received a lot of feedback from numerous employees, group it into themes and write out your response to each ‘thread’ and any changes to the proposal made as a result

 

  1. Confirm
  • Having considered any feedback and made a decision, you need to draft up a second letter outlining your decision. This should include:
    • A summary of feedback received and your response
    • Any changes made to the proposal as a result of the feedback
    • What your final decision is, and the outcome for the employee’s role, including timing. If applicable, you may include details around final pay
    • If redeployment is an option or a selection process will follow, provide the details for this
    • Consider what outplacement support you can offer and outline this in the letter – this could include career coaching, assistance with writing a CV, an interview technique workshop, and financial planning resources.

Change processes can be very complex and are difficult for everyone involved. Emotions are likely to run high and it is so important that you get it right. Positive People can help. Email us at info@positivepeople.co.nz or call 09 445 1077 for a confidential discussion.

More COVID-19 FAQs Answered Here (issued 3 April 2020)

Issue #2: More COVID-19 FAQs Answered Here

 

Question: Do I need to consult or get agreement to reduce pay?

The COVID-19 lockdown is an unprecedented event, and there are differing views about whether you need written agreement to a pay reduction, or if you only need to consult. It is generally agreed that a unilateral pay reduction with no consultation is a high risk strategy. We recommend running a short consultation and seeking written (email or text) feedback or agreement prior to confirming the temporary change to terms and conditions. You can also use this opportunity to have employees indicate in writing if they would like to ‘top up’ their pay by taking some annual leave (e.g. one day per week).

 

Question: Can we use annual leave balances to top up the wage subsidy?

If you are passing on the wage subsidy, employees may agree to take Annual Leave to top up the subsidy. Likewise, if you have reduced pay to 80%, they may request or agree to take one day Annual Leave per week to maintain 100% pay. You may also direct an employee to take Annual Leave, but you must first try to reach agreement. If agreement can’t be reached, you must give 14 days’ notice and it must be from the Annual Leave ‘entitlement’ – you cannot direct an employee to use their ‘accrued’ balance.

 

Question: If I accept the wage subsidy can I make people redundant during this period if things change?

You need to try your best to retain your employees you are currently receiving the wage subsidy for. If you applied for the wage subsidy for any employees after the scheme was modified at 4pm on 27 March 2020, you must retain those employees or you will be in breach of your obligations. The WINZ website states that if you breach your obligations by making someone redundant you need to repay the subsidy within five days.

 

Question: What are the options if someone has signed an employment agreement but haven’t started work yet?

If you have offered someone work and they have accepted, they have the same rights as other employees – even if they haven’t started working for you yet. You can apply for the wage subsidy and pass this on from after their start date. Just like with current employees, you need to consult if you wish to change their terms and conditions (reduce hours and/or pay) or make them redundant. If you have a Business Interruption clause in your agreement, you may choose to invoke this. But remember, even with this clause you must ask for feedback before confirming suspension without pay.

 

Question: What happens if an employee was due to return from parental leave during the lockdown period?

Similar to the above, if this was the agreed date for the employee to return to work you must proceed with that plan. Therefore, you can apply for the wage subsidy for this employee and pass it on to them from their planned return date. You should still consult with the employee prior to confirming any changes to pay or hours during the lockdown period – even if they haven’t returned to work yet.

 

Question: An employee had an overseas holiday booked to take place during the lockdown and had Annual Leave approved. Now they want to retract that request (we are not an essential business) but I want them to take the Annual Leave. Can I enforce that?

Technically you can, but for fairness and simplicity, many employers have wiped all Annual Leave requests from the start of the lockdown and will review this at the end of the initial 4-week lockdown period.

 

Question: Can/should casuals qualify for the wage subsidy and be paid something during the lockdown?

Yes, they can – you use average weekly hours to calculate the amount. However, as casuals should have no expectation of ongoing work and you have no obligation to offer it, technically you don’t need to apply for and pass on the subsidy. If you review a casuals average hours and decide to apply for the wage subsidy scheme on their behalf, you should also consider whether they are a true casual. If they regularly work a pattern of hours and could reasonably expect this to be ongoing, they may be considered ‘permanent’. An important definition if you need to restructure down the track.

 

Question: What are the potential scenarios where we might be at risk of having to pay back the wage subsidy to the government?

You need to repay some or all the COVID-19 Wage Subsidy if:

  • You no longer meet the criteria for the subsidy
  • You’re not meeting your obligation to use the subsidy to retain and pay your employees,
  • You’ve received insurance (eg, business continuity insurance) for any costs covered by the subsidy
  • You have provided false or misleading information in your application.

You can check the obligations here.

Obligations if you applied before 4pm on 27 March

Obligations if you applied on or after 4pm on 27 March

You can also make a repayment if you were overpaid or made a mistake on your application.

 

Question: Did the minimum wage increase go ahead? I’m worried that I won’t be able to access the system to make the changes.

The adult minimum wage rate increased $1.20 from $17.70 to $18.90 per hour on 1 April 2020. However, MBIE recognises that some employers may not be able to action the increase immediately, while also complying with lockdown requirements. If you cannot process the raise in time, you should communicate with your employees about this. You should then process the increase as soon as you are able to do so in compliance with any COVID-19 restrictions in place. You will need to pay employees back for any hours that were worked, but for which the required pay rate could not be processed at the time.

 

Question: Does the wage subsidy always need to be passed on in full?

Not always. If your employee’s usual wages are less than the subsidy, you must pay them their usual wages. Any difference should be used for the wages of other affected staff.

 

Question: Can I reduce an employees pay if they’re on minimum wage but can’t work? What happens when they come back to work – partially or fully?

During the lockdown and beyond, you must still pay workers for the work they do. This means employees—regardless of whether they are working from home, or from premises to do essential work—must be paid at least the new minimum wage for each hour they work. If the employee cannot work during the lockdown and does not wish to use any Annual Leave entitlements, you can access the wage subsidy and pass this on in full without topping it up to minimum wage for the employees normal hours, or requiring the employee to do any work. You should still follow a consultation to implement this reduction in pay.

 

Question: What should employees be paid for the public holidays over Easter?

For employees who would have otherwise worked on the public holiday (had the lockdown not been in place and had not been a public holiday), then they should be paid for that public holiday at their relevant daily pay as set out in the Holidays Act. If the employees pay has recently been reduced, then the relevant daily pay rate is this reduced pay rate – unless otherwise agreed with them. We know some employers who have reduced pay are choosing to pay public holidays at the employees ‘normal’ full pay.

 

Question: How do we manage pay for staff returning to work on reduced hours – specifically the point at which we have to ‘top up’ the wage subsidy (if the wage subsidy is what we are currently paying)?

Employees must be paid for any hours worked at a minimum – however, the wage subsidy can go towards this pay. However, many employees who cannot work and have taken a pay reduction during the lockdown, will expect to be paid more when they return to work. How you manage this is really going to depend on what pay reduction you have applied, and the hours worked on return. We think it all comes down to communication. If you think that pay reductions will need to remain in place even when employees return to work (either at normal or reduced hours) it is important that you communicate this possibility early and then consult with employees fully when the time comes.

 

Question: What are our H&S obligations when people do start returning to work?

Employee safety is paramount. It is likely that when employees return from the lockdown changes will need to be made to the way you work to keep everyone safe. We will be looking to government advice when the time comes and implementing all recommended measures (e.g. social distancing) as a minimum. We also recommend the following:

  • If you don’t have a Health and Safety Manager, appoint one person to be the COVID-19 co-ordinator. Communicate this person (ideally a senior manager) as the first point of contact for any related matters
  • Identify your risks and work to eliminate, isolate or mitigate these risks
  • Involve employees in a brain storming session to get their ideas on how best to manage the risks to themselves and their colleagues
  • Make an emergency plan
  • Review your sick leave, absence and travel policies. You may need to issue amended versions of these policies for the duration of the COVID-19 threat
  • Communicate regularly, in over-drive, with employees via email, text and social media
    • Publicise the supported need for employees to go home if unwell or not to come in if unwell
    • Publicise the hygiene recommendations like hand washing, management of coughing/sneezing etc.
    • Publicise the Ministry of Health guidelines and information
  • If practicable, promote remote working/video conferencing and flexible work options where required
  • Keep up-to-date with the current situation in the country and follow official advice as it is presented
  • Develop a relationship with a medical provider/doctor. Alongside Healthline’s dedicated COVID-19 number (0800 358 5453), this will ensure you have trusted guidance available to answer questions and deal with concerns such as when an employee needs to self-isolate
  • Discuss and agree (as much as possible) anything that comes up with employees

 

We know that every business is different. If you need help with working through the HR implications of Covid-19 in your workplace, call us on 09-445 1077 or email us at info@positivepeople.co.nz