COVID-19: Information For Employers

23 March 2020

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As cases of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, continue to rise across the globe, businesses must be ready to make timely decisions to meet WHS obligations. Here’s what you need to know right now.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Some people may also experience aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhoea.

How does COVID-19 spread?

The virus can spread from person to person through:

  • close contact with someone infected by the virus (including in the 24 hours before they started showing symptoms)

  • contact with droplets the sneeze or cough of an infected person’s cough or sneeze

  • touching objects or surfaces that have cough or sneeze droplets from an infected person, and then touching your mouth or face

Recent Government decisions for Australia

  • The COVIDSafe app speeds up contacting people exposed to coronavirus (COVID-19). This helps health officials support and protect you, your friends and family. The app is now available from the Apple App Store and Google Play.

  • Testing for coronavirus is now available to every Australian with mild respiratory symptoms including a cough and sore throat.

  • Job seekers will be exempt from reporting their mutual obligation requirements up to and including 22 May 2020.

  • Restrictions on elective surgery will gradually ease from Tuesday 28 April.

  • Everyone should stay home unless you are: shopping for what you need, receiving medical care, exercising or travelling to work or education.

  • No more than two people should be out in public together, with the exception of family and household groups. Check State and Territory websites for further enforcement information.

Source: Australian Government: Coronavirus (COVID‑19)

Providing information to employees

It’s important that businesses provide regular COVID-19 updates so employees feel informed and supported. Updates should cover:

  • Current COVID-19 stats and status

  • Potential impacts that the virus may have on the workplace, as well as any policy/procedure changes

  • Advice on good hygiene practices for work and home

It’s an uncertain time and many of your employees may also be feeling afraid, worried or overwhelmed. To meet your WHS obligations in relation to psychological health, consider circulating information regarding your Employee Assistance Program (if you have a program in place), health and wellness tips and links to third-party sites and mental health resources.

Protecting workers

The current ban on non-essential indoor events of less than 100 people does not currently apply to all workplaces. Following the National Cabinet held on 22 March 2020, all Australian States and Territories agreed to national measures that are less broad and resulted in the shutdown of the following from midday on Monday 23rd of March:

  • Pubs, licensed clubs and hotels (excluding accommodation)

  • Gyms

  • Skateparks

  • Indoor sporting venues

  • Cinemas

  • Beauty salons

  • Play centres and outside playgrounds

  • Places of worship and other public places

  • Cafes and restaurants (take away only)

However, to comply with WHS laws, businesses that are allowed to remain in operation must identify risks at the workplace and do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate or minimise those risks. Generally, this means businesses should:

  • Determine and implement an appropriate risk management plan and clearly communicate it to all staff. Be sure to provide clear direction and guidance about workplace expectations

  • Encourage staff to work from home where possible

  • Ask employees to stop handshaking or engaging in other physical greetings

  • Hold meetings via video conferencing or phone calls

  • Hold essential face-to-face meetings outside in the open air (if possible and if a video or phone meeting is not suitable)

  • Encourage good hand hygiene (ask employees to follow this guide) and provide hand sanitisers for all staff and workers

  • Encourage staff to take lunch at their desk or outside rather than in the lunchroom, and limit or ban food sharing

  • Clean and disinfect high touch surfaces regularly

  • Consider opening windows and adjusting air conditioning for more ventilation

  • Limit or ban non-essential business travel

  • Ensure employees keep a distance of 1.5 metres

  • Require employees to stay away from the workplace if they are unwell

  • Limit access to the workplace by other people, unless absolutely necessary

  • Promote the strictest hygiene among food preparation (canteen) staff and their close contacts

What are my privacy obligations to workers?

Critical information sharing is not in breach of the Privacy Act and employers have important obligations to maintain a safe workplace. However, during this time, employers should ensure that all personal information shared about the health of a staff member is:

  • used or disclosed on a ‘need-to-know’ basis

  • only the minimum amount of information reasonably necessary to prevent or manage COVID-19

Employers should also take steps to notify staff of how their personal information will be handled in response to COVID-19 and ensure reasonable steps taken to keep personal information secure.

Managing and controlling risk

It’s important to stay on top of your risks at all times by:

  • Closely monitoring official advice, including travel advice

  • Reviewing your policies and measures for infection control, including educating workers on best practice

  • Ensuring workers are aware of the official isolation/quarantine periods and the actions they should take if they become unwell or suspect they have contracted the virus

  • Considering whether any work activities put other people at risk.

  • Putting plans in place to manage staff absences and increased workloads

  • Providing workers with relevant information and resources

Do workers need to wear masks?

The official advice from the Department of Health is that surgical masks should only be worn by people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to prevent the spread to others. It’s not currently recommended that surgical masks need to be worn by healthy people.

What should you do if your workers may come into close contact with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19?

If you know that your employees may come into close contact with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19, you must put measures in place, so far as reasonably practicable, to eliminate or minimise the risk of your workers contracting the virus. This may include supplying personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves and face masks, and engineering isolation controls.

When can I direct an employee to stay home?

There’s nothing in the WHS legislation that deals expressly with when an employer may direct a worker to stay away home. However, the laws require you, so far as is reasonably practicable, to ensure the health and safety of your workers by identifying and either minimising or eliminating risks.

There are various controls that a workplace may consider, including working-from-home arrangements, implementing social distancing by separating workers and/or delaying non-essential tasks. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The most important thing is that you consider the context of your business and the safety of your staff by:

  • consulting with affected workers and their representatives

  • considering what workplace or other laws might prevent you from directing an employee to stay home

  • keep up-to-date with official information

  • seek professional advice specific to your circumstances

If a worker is diagnosed with COVID-19 or shows symptoms, it is reasonable to direct them to leave the premises and self-isolate until they can obtain medical clearance to reenter the workplace.

Do my employees need to comply with direction to stay at home?

WHS legislation requires workers to comply with reasonable instructions given by an employer. This means that employees are required to comply with your direction to stay home if they are reasonably able to and the instruction was reasonable for your circumstances.

Can a worker refuse to come to work?

If it is reasonable for your worker to think that going to work would pose a serious risk to their health then your employee does have the right to refuse to come to work. However, your employee is obligated to:

  • inform you as soon as reasonably practicable they can that they have stopped working

  • be available to carry out suitable alternative work (for instance, working from home).

What do I do if an employee is feeling unwell and suffering from flu-like symptoms?

If a worker presents with any of the COVID-19 symptoms, you should direct them to leave the workplace, follow the official advice from the Australian Government, including seeking urgent medical attention if they suspect they may have contracted the virus. The health and safety of staff and those they come into contact with must be your top priority.

All employees, except casuals, are entitled to 10 days of paid sick leave every year which accrues over years of service. If an employee becomes ill and has accrued sick leave they are entitled to take it in accordance with the Fair Work Act. There is no limit on the number of days of accrued leave that can be taken as personal leave

What do I do if an employee has recently returned from overseas?

On Sunday 15 March, the Australian Government implemented a universal precautionary self-isolation requirement for people entering or re-entering Australia. This means that all employees are now required by law to self-isolate for 14 days if they return from overseas due to potential exposure.

Can an employee use sick leave if they are directed to self-isolate but are not actually ill?

Under the Fair Work Act, an employee is only allowed to take sick/carer’s (personal) leave if:

  • They are hurt or sick

  • They need to care for an immediate family member who is hurt or sick

  • They have a family emergency

This means that an employee who is required to self-isolate but is not yet sick themselves cannot use their sick (personal) leave to cover their absence.

However, due to the current climate, employers should look to implement practical solutions so that an employee does not suffer financially. Solutions may include:

  • Allowing the employee to work from home

  • Allowing employees to use any other leave available to them (such as annual or long service leave)

  • Negotiating another paid or unpaid leave agreement

  • Varying rosters or hours and scaling down operations

Your ability to vary hours and/or rosters will largely depend upon the applicable industrial instrument (e.g. enterprise agreement or award) or contract that applies to your workers. It is strongly recommended that employers seek professional advice prior to making any changes.

Workers’ Compensation and COVID-19

Workers compensation schemes are the responsibility of the Commonwealth, states and territories and may differ. However, there are three common rules that would apply in the case of COVID-19:

  • that the worker is covered by the scheme

  • that the worker has an injury, illness or disease that’s covered by the scheme

  • that their injury, illness or disease arose out of, or in the course of, their employment

However, as the virus spreads, unless during the course of their employment the worker travels to an impacted area or comes into contact with infected people, it will become increasingly hard to prove that contraction came about as a result of the workplace.

Whether a COVID-19 workers compensation claim would be accepted will be a matter for the relevant workers’ compensation authority, which will consider relevant legislation, individual circumstances and evidence.

WHS risks to consider if workers are working from home

Employers of workers who work from home have a duty of care to ensure that the employee’s remote workspace is free from hazards. Employers should consider developing a working from home policy to minimise risks associated with:

  • slips, trips and falls

  • workstation ergonomics

  • manual tasks

  • electrical safety

  • psychosocial risks such as personal security and isolation

  • environmental hazards such as noise.

Standing down employees

Under the Fair Work Act employers have the right to temporarily stand down employees without pay during a period in which the employees cannot be “usefully employed” because of a stoppage of work for any cause for which the employer cannot reasonably be held responsible. However, it is strongly recommended that employers seek professional advice.

Where to go for more information for employers

It’s important to stay up to date. For the latest advice, information and resources, go to www.health.gov.au or call the National Coronavirus Health Helpline on 1800 020 080 (24/7). If you require translating or interpreting services, call 131 450.

The phone number of your state or territory public health agency is available at www.health.gov.au/state-territory-contacts. If you have concerns about your own personal health, speak to your local GP.

More helpful resources

  • Worksafe VIC- Preparing for a pandemic: a guide for employers

  • Coronavirus: advice for NSW workplaces

  • Safework Australia: Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advice for Employers

  • Queensland Government: Coronavirus (COVID-19) workplace risk management

  • SafeWork SA: Coronavirus (COVID-19) workplace information

  • Department of health: Coronavirus (COVID-19) information for employers