Employers obligations with COVID-19
This article is written by Mikayla Hughes.
Now that New Zealand has confirmed COVID-19 (“coronavirus”) cases, it is important that employers understand their obligations pursuant to the Employment Relations Act 2000, Holidays Act 2003 and Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (“HSWA”). As the situation is still evolving, employers should closely monitor information about coronavirus from credible sources (which are being updated as necessary) including:
- Ministry of Health: https://www.health.govt.nz/our- work/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-novel-coronavirus
- Employment New Zealand: https://www.employment.govt.nz/about/news-and-updates/workplace-response-to-coronavirus/
- Business New Zealand: https://www.business.govt.nz/news/coronavirus-information-for-businesses/
- MBIE: https://www.mbie.govt.nz/about/open-government-and-official-information/coronavirus-covid-19/
From the outset, it is important that employers communicate with staff and provide information to them about coronavirus including:
- Practical tips for prevention;
- Symptoms of coronavirus;
- Advice on what the employee should do if they have any symptoms of coronavirus;
- The employer’s approach to overseas travel; and
- Where the employee can find further information.
We would recommend that this take the form of a policy that is distributed to staff and can be updated as further information comes to light. If an employee raises any questions, concerns or practical issues with the policy, the employer should consider and address these.
Whether or not an employer is required to pay employee sick leave and/or annual leave will depend on the specific circumstances. An issue may arise for instance where the employee is not him/herself ill but is required to self–isolate due to having been in contact with a known sufferer of the virus. Or they may be required to stay home to look after children in the event a school has closed. An employer will be required to act in accordance with the employment agreement, including their good faith obligations but will also need to balance this with their duty of care under the HSWA. This may involve exploring alternative solutions with each employee such as working from home or allowing an employee to take annual leave and/or sick leave in advance. There is no “one size fits all” answer but our employment team can provide guidance on an employer’s rights and obligations as required.
From 1am on Monday 16 March, every person arriving into New Zealand (except those coming from the Pacific islands) will have to self-isolate for 14 days. If an employee is required to self-isolate but is not actually sick, they will ordinarily not be entitled to paid sick leave (as the circumstances do not fall within the definition of sick leave. Notwithstanding this, given the unprecedented circumstances, employers could agree that the employee can utilise their sick leave and/or annual leave entitlements. Alternatively, the employer could consider making arrangements so the employee can work from home or allowing the employee to take annual leave in advance. Any agreement of this nature should be recorded in writing.
Finally, please do not hesitate to contact one of our employment lawyers if your business has been significantly affected by the economic impact of coronavirus and you need to consider changes to your workforce or reducing employees’ hours of work.