Coronavirus factsheet for employers

Read our coronavirus Q&A to find out how the outbreak could impact your workplace.

BrightHR Team

First published 18th March 2020. Last updated 22nd October at 3pm.

Now that the coronavirus outbreak has been labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organization, you’ve probably got a lot of questions about how it will impact your business and what you can do as an employer. Here we answer some of your complex HR questions…

Q. One Of My Employees Will Be Travelling Overseas Soon. What Can I Do?

A. Employees may have pre-booked annual leave to countries which have a high number of cases and you may be concerned that they pose a risk of picking up the virus and exposing the rest of the workforce to it. You cannot force employees not to travel if there are no restrictions in place and employees may not be inclined to cancel their plans if it means they may miss an important family event or stand to lose money.

If an employee is travelling overseas, encourage them to maintain good hygiene whilst travelling and pay attention to any signs of ill health. If they return from their travels and are unwell, manage this in accordance with the guidance above, depending on where they have travelled.

Q. The coronavirus has caused a downturn in business and I cannot afford to keep my employees. What can I do?

A. If you have experienced a downturn in business and one of the following applies to you, you will need to consider commencing the redundancy process with some or all of your employees:

  • Cannot sustain paying all of your employees.
  • Only have enough work for some but not all employees.
  • Have temporarily shut down but now you do not believe that your business will recover in its current form.
  • You are permanently ceasing operations.

Prior to making a decision to commence redundancy consultations, review your workforce to consider any alternatives, such as redeployment or reduced hours.

If there are any alternatives, have a discussion with affected employees to see if they would be willing to do this. If they agree, ensure that any changes to terms and conditions are recorded in writing. Be wary of how you approach this to ensure the employee does not feel pressured into accepting any alternative.

If you are unable to identify any alternatives to redundancy, you may be in a position to commence consultation with employees. This will involve a series of meetings with affected employees, usually three, whereby you discuss the proposal and seek any feedback or suggestions from employees.

The redundancy process will vary case by case depending on the reason and any changes during consultations. You should seek advice before proceeding.

Q. One of my employees must care for a member of their immediate family who is sick. What leave are they entitled to?

A. Whilst they are not sick themselves, the employee will be entitled to personal/ carers leave (if available). Alternatively, you may agree a period of unpaid leave.

Q. One of my employees is refusing to attend work, citing the potential risk of infection. Can they refuse to attend work?

A. You will need to review and ensure your workplace is safe for employee’s. If there is no real risk of infection at work, any absence would be unauthorised and therefore they would not be entitled to pay. You would need to consider your Company policies and procedures, with consideration for the situation in mind in terms of how you decide to manage such a refusal and any unauthorised leave.

At your discretion, you may allow the employee to take accrued annual leave or long service leave or alternatively agree to a period of unpaid leave.

Q. One of my employees is self-isolating due to Government guidance. Are they entitled to paid leave?

A. The employee is not necessarily entitled to paid leave but you may consider allowing them to use accrued annual leave or long service leave. Any agreement to take leave should be confirmed in writing. Employees covered under the Aged Care Award 2010, Health Professionals and Support Services Award 2010 and Nurses Award 2010 may be entitled to paid pandemic leave.

You may also explore the option to work from home, if suitable.

Q. If we are told that we must shut down the business, can we stand down my employees without pay?

A. It may be possible to stand down employees in circumstances that your business has been told by the Government to shut down as a whole due to the coronavirus and your employees cannot be usefully employed.

However, the stand down provision under the Act is a last resort. As an employer, it is your responsibility to take all reasonable steps to avoid a stand down. This will mean reviewing whether the affected employees may be usefully employed in another capacity which may be another role within their skill and expertise. This may extend to a role that is completely outside of their experience, but which can be done with proper training. If applicable you will also need to consider associated entities or from another location such as homeworking. If there is an alternative, you cannot lawfully stand down your employees.

With regards to the alternative, it’s also important to note that you can’t unilaterally change an employee’s role. You should discuss the alternative, confirm that it is a temporary arrangement and detail the offer in writing. You will need to obtain the employees consent to the change and confirm the temporary nature of the change in writing.

During this temporary change, the employees pay and hours of work should be maintained, even if the alternative typically attracts a lower rate of pay.

If there is no alternative, you may communicate to your employees in writing that stand down will comments. This is only appropriate for temporary or short term stoppages and advice should be sought before proceeding with stand down.

If you are unsure when you will be operational again and believe it may be an extended period of time before you are, you may need to consider making your employees redundant.