Issue #1: Your COVID-19 FAQs Answered Here
* Last Updated 3 April 2020
Question: What is the process from an HR perspective if my business needs to close temporarily?
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, businesses may need to close temporarily for a range of reasons – we foresee this happening more than once for some employers. Beyond government enforced lockdowns, there may be a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 at your workplace. In that event, you may need to close for cleaning, and it’s likely that several of the team will be required to self-isolate, causing an operational disruption requiring temporary closure. In addition, some businesses/industries that are most heavily impacted may need to close for periods of time due to lack of work. If your business needs to partially or completely shut down temporarily due to the pandemic, we recommend that you go through a condensed consultation process with impacted employees.
This involves proposing your plan to employees, seeking their feedback, confirming your final decision/plan and then implementing the change. This can all be done within a short timeframe if required. If the closure needs to happen immediately, this consultation process can be carried out in the course of a single meeting or over a one- or two-day period. While it is reasonable to run a shortened process in the case of an enforced immediate business closure, good documentation will reduce your risks and also ensure that your employees fully understand what is happening and why. Outlining why you need to take action, your plan and then what you have decided in writing will allow employees to take this information and digest it properly after your discussions, as well as seek support and advice from friends and family.
Check your Individual Employment Agreements for a Force Majeure or Business Interruption clause – if you have one included, ensure that you are honouring these terms and conditions as a minimum and refer employees to the clause in your communications. You should still ask for employee feedback prior to enforcing this clause.
If you need assistance with documentation and running meetings, Positive People are available to help.
Question: Even outside of a lockdown, should I have people working from home wherever possible?
It is likely that the government will ask people to practice social distancing for some time, even outside of any enforced lockdown period. If working from home is an option in your workplace, we recommend following government advice at all times, and having people work from home if you can.
We have also heard of some creative solutions for reducing the risk in the workplace. For example, splitting the team into two and asking them to only attend the workplace on alternate days, and work from home the other days. This reduces the number of people in the office and would halve the amount of people exposed if someone becomes unwell.
Question: What should I do if my employees have children at school or daycare/kindergarten who are impacted by closures but my business is still operational (either essential service, or not in full lockdown)?
If you have a smaller business, you can approach this situation on a case-by-case basis but for larger businesses you need to think about precedent and fairness, so may need to decide on an approach that can be applied to all staff in the case of school and pre-school closures.
The first thing to consider is whether the employee can carry out some or all of their duties from home – or whether they can pick up alternate duties that can be completed from home. If you can accommodate the employee working from home, other things to agree include working hours, availability for phone calls and virtual meetings and/or required outputs. If the children are young there may be a requirement to be flexible with hours (e.g. some hours worked on the weekend when other carers are available, early in the morning or late at night) or reduce hours.
In the event that the employee cannot work from home (either due to the nature of their work or because their children are young and require constant supervision), you may agree that they should use annual leave first, and then transfer to paid special leave and/or unpaid leave.
Question: Outside of a lockdown, what are my obligations if an employee is advised to self-isolate?
First, you must pass on any government wage subsidy scheme payments that you have received. After that, you may agree to treat this time as sick leave, annual leave, special paid leave or unpaid special leave.
If an employee is required to self-isolate but they still want to attend work, you must tell them to stay away from the workplace and comply with the self-isolation directive. Allowing the employee to return to the workplace when they are subject to the self-isolation directive may constitute a breach of your duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. Likewise, if they become unwell (but are not under a self-isolation directive) but still want to come to the workplace.
If an employee comes to work when sick or in breach of the self-isolation directive, you may consider that this constitutes serious misconduct, being a breach of a lawful instruction and a breach of their employee health and safety obligations. Following a full and fair process, this may warrant disciplinary action.
Question: Outside of a lockdown, what should we do if one of our employees lives with or has been exposed to someone who is ‘self-isolating’ due to illness or exposure?
Again, smaller businesses may be in a position to take a case-by-case approach to this. This would allow you to take all relevant factors into account and agree on the best solution. However, if you have a larger business you will need to decide on the best approach and communicate this to your team.
Some businesses have decided that if an employee has any exposure to someone in self-isolation they must stay away from the workplace for 14 days. After passing on any government wage subsidy, you may agree on the use of annual or sick leave, or offer some paid special leave where possible.
Question: Can I require employees to work from home?
You are entitled to ask an employee to work from home. You will have to provide the necessary equipment/systems, such as a computer, mobile phone, relevant software access etc. In some cases, employees may agree to work from home and offer to use their home equipment. In this case you may choose to come up with some form of compensation – for example, a contribution to the monthly wifi and phone bill.
It is important to note that as the employer you still have various health and safety obligations to the employee when they are working from home. As such, it is important to ensure that you have up to date policies regarding working from home safely. Even if they have previously been provided, it’s a good idea to re-send them and request a confirmation of receipt if the employee has not worked from home before.
Question: Outside of the lockdown, what should we do about work-related travel?
Remain aware of the Ministry of Health’s travel advice, which is regularly updated. You must consider this in relation to your health and safety obligations and make a decision from there. You may also decide that work-related travel only take place where it is considered essential and where it aligns to government advice and is agreed by the employer and employee.
Question: How should I respond if an employee is concerned about contracting COVID-19 at work?
If an employee advises you that they believe they are at risk of contracting COVID-19 by attending the workplace, you must consider the basis for the employee’s concerns. We know that for many, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing high levels of stress and anxiety. This is a very real and genuine wellbeing concern. Furthermore, some employees may be particularly vulnerable due to age, pregnancy or pre-existing conditions, or be worried about a family member who is. As an employer, it is important to show support, compassion and look for solutions.
If you agree that the employee’s concerns are reasonable, then you must take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health and safety of your employees, such as increasing cleaning, providing PPE where relevant, limiting meetings (or reducing attendees), moving work stations to increase distances between them, and implementing hygiene policies.
The employer and employee may agree to vary the employee’s duties or location of work in order to address the employee’s concerns. Where practical, you could allow the employee to work from home for a reasonable period of time.
Question: What do I need to do if an employee is exposed to or contracts COVID-19?
If an employee has been exposed to or contracts COVID-19 and has attended the workplace prior to diagnoses, you must first work with Healthline (call 0800 358 5453) to determine what actions you need to take. This is likely to include immediate closure while you assist in identifying close contacts and working with Healthline on advising them on steps for testing and self-isolation. You will also need to seek advice on cleaning the workplace prior to people returning to work. Any employee who has contracted COVID-19 must not return to work until they are cleared by a health professional.
In terms of how you treat the period of absence for anyone who has contracted COVID-19, contractual sick leave would apply, followed by unpaid sick leave if their balance does not cover the period of leave. However, in the event that the employee has been exposed to or contracted COVID-19 at work, we recommend that wherever possible, you ensure that the employee is paid no less than they would normally be paid for the period of self-isolation or illness.
Question: What should I do about my upcoming conference / training or other work-related event?
Check covid19.govt.nz for the latest guidance on gatherings and events and make a decision from there. Keep in mind that during the COVID-19 crisis attendance at all events is likely to be lower than usual even when operating within government guidelines. People may choose not to attend due to their own wellbeing concerns, their own company policies (if they do not work for you), childcare responsibilities (if there are school closures), self-isolation and illness.
Question: I may need to downsize the business due to the economic impact of COVID-19. What is the process?
As the economic impact of COVID-19 continues to worsen, you may be in the difficult situation of needing to seek to reduce expenses by restructuring your business and implementing redundancies.
As with any restructure, employees must be advised of the proposed changes, and their feedback must be considered before any changes are made. However, given the nature of the economic impact from COVID-19, it would be reasonable for the timeframe for this consultation to be shortened significantly.
Although inevitable in some situations, redundancy should be a last resort. Be sure to consider alternatives such as voluntary redundancies, reductions in hours (again, some people may volunteer), reductions in pay, changes in roles and locations. You may also agree on leave arrangements – for example, you may agree that employees use one day of annual leave per week until their balance reaches zero, before transferring to one day per week of unpaid leave or reducing hours.
As with temporary closures and suspensions, ensure that you are up-to-date with government wage subsidy offers prior to coming up with your change proposal.
Question: I have offered an overseas candidate a job and they have a visa application pending or they have a visa approved and were booked to travel to New Zealand. Can they still come?
Find the most up-to-date information from Immigration New Zealand here