13 Mar 2020

Advice to employers coping with Covid-19 isolation

From Nine To Noon, 9:31 am on 13 March 2020

More than 9000 New Zealanders are in isolation as the country deals with the global outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus, but what issues is this throwing up for employers?

Earlier this week the Ministry of Health advised people to stay home if they have mild cold symptoms, to help slow the spread of the virus.

But what happens if employees can't work from home? Or have used up their sick leave?

Businessman working in modern cretive studio. Using generic design laptop. Architectural project on table.

Photo: 123rf

The Employers and Manufacturers Association has more than 7000 members from Taupō northwards.

It's general legal counsel Matt Dearing says he’s seen an increase in the number of people calling for advice – at least 20 percent.

Most people are calling about self-isolation, asking who foots the bill.

“The Ministry of Health obviously has its guidelines around self-isolation, which are publicly available on their website, and that’s in relation to anyone who’s been to one of the category one or two countries or anyone who’s been in close contact with someone who’s had a confirmed case of Covid-19.

“It’s very important, as a start, if a worker’s sick with actual Covid-19 or has been advised by the Ministry of Health to self-isolate under those guidelines, the first consideration obviously is for an employer to look after their people and ensure public health.”

Employers shouldn’t require, or knowingly allow, workers to come to work while they are sick with Covid-19 or if they’ve been advised to self-isolate, he says.

“If they do, they’re likely to be in breach of their duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act and there can be pretty severe penalties for employers if they breach their health and safety obligations."

What about working from home?

Contracts usually have a general clause to designate a usual location of work but may note that an employee is required to work at another location from time to time. Again, it comes down to good faith, Dearing says.

There will many grey areas, he says.

With some people unable to see a doctor to get a medical certificate, it is a possibility an employee won’t have one. Dearing says if there’s been a genuine attempt to get one, the employer needs to act in a fair and reasonable manner, as does the employee.

“If you simply got a cold or the flu potentially, and I know that some of the government officials are saying if you’ve got a runny nose, you’ve got a cough, please don’t come into work and we would agree with that to ensure again public health and safety.”

It’s not appropriate to go into work and “battle on” as you may usually do, he says.

If you’ve already used up your sick leave, you should talk to your employer about using sick leave in advance and utilising annual leave, special leave, or a mixture, he says.

“It’s really going to be quite specific for each employer.”

Bigger businesses might find these things easier than smaller ones, he says.

Dearing says he expects the government to come out with some form of support for businesses if the current progress of the virus continues.

“We’re just waiting to find out what’s going to happen next week.”