8 May 2020

Covid-19: The prospects facing employees as they head back to the office under alert level 2

7:24 am on 8 May 2020

Staggered starts at work, buses running half full, and limits on the lifts are all prospects facing office workers heading into Covid-19 alert level 2.

Auckland central on the morning of 26 March, on the first day of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.

An empty central Auckland on the first day of the alert level 4 lockdown. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Under alert level 4, the Auckland and Wellington central business districts were like ghost towns.

At alert level 3, Queen Street and Lambton Quay have offered skeletal pickings to the brave few cafes and shops offering contactless service.

But alert level 2's rules are looser than Wellington lawyer Olivia Lund had expected.

Olivia Lund of law firm Duncan Cotterill, Wellington branch

Olivia Lund. Photo: Supplied

"It's not as restrictive as what I had anticipated. So we will probably have more of our workforce returning to the office," Lund, of law firm Duncan Cotterill, said.

"I thought that there would have been more strict requirements around that one metre physical distancing in the workplaces, and also some restrictions on the regional travel.

"My take on the prime minister's announcement... is that we're going to be in alert level 2 for some time... so it's likely to be longer than a month."

Lund has been at the forefront of advising clients on how to meet health and safety obligations at alert level 2.

"The threshold's high, obviously, so organisations are going to have to do everything that they reasonably can do to prevent workers being exposed."

The lobby and lift

Even getting into the office past the shared space in the lobby of a multi-storey building presents new obstacles.

"If there is no other way to access the workplace, so the stairs can't be used... it might be that it's one person in a lift at a time, that would be a consideration," Lund said.

"Or otherwise, it's use stairs to avoid that close proximity."

However, it might be practicable and acceptable for workers who were strangers to each other to share a lift as long as the duration was limited, she said.

At national engineering firm Beca, with 2300 employees, managers are scratching their heads about the lifts.

Allowing two or four people in will depend on the size of the lift, New Zealand managing director Darryl-Lee Wendelborn said - though if a lift is shared with workers from another company, then 1.5m minimum distancing will be required, even if it means standing the lift corners.

But Beca wants its staff back in if it can.

"We're definitely looking to encourage all of our people back into the office," Wendelborn said.

"Now, I don't mean that everybody's going to be in the office working the way that they used to, but we do think that kind of connection helps us deliver."

That goal was clear even if the process - gradual and tailored to fit each of its 10 offices, from Auckland with 30 teams, to New Plymouth with 30 staff - was yet to be fully worked out, she said.

Staggered meal breaks and start times would be a part of it, Beca said.

The commute

The bus station in Mangere. One man is seen waiting in the bus stop. The rest of the area is quiet.

Public transport will be different to normal under alert level 2. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

In Auckland, only the window seats of buses and trains and ferries are likely to be used.

"So it's probably about 40 percent capacity, 40 to 45 percent," Auckland Transport's metro manager Stacey van der Putten said, even though the whole fleet was on hand.

Other measures in Auckland at alert level 2 are:

  • Trains and ferries will run on standard daily timetables rather than the reduced services under alert level 3
  • Only Hop cards will be accepted, which allows contact tracing
  • Increased cleaning will continue using systems providing two-week anti-viral protection
  • Staff have PPE
  • Passengers could choose to wear masks

There is also a new tool for commuters who fear being left stranded in the rain.

"Buses will have displayed on the outside the actual number of passengers that bus can carry," van der Putten said.

"And customers can actually see, with their AT mobile [app], if they're waiting at a bus stop, if this bus has enough capacity in order for me to be able to take my journey."

Both Auckland and Wellington public transport operator Metlink do not expect pre-Covid peak time demand to return under alert level 2.

One reason for that was revealed by Lund: Some big businesses, with good work-from-home set-ups, fear the reputational risk of a mass return, in case they get a virus outbreak with their name on it.

"Yes, and those organisations I know are going to continue to work from home in alert level 2, even though they have offices in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch CBD," Lund said.

Peak commuter demand will also probably be flattened by the staggering of office workers' start times, as Beca plans to do.

The head of Wellington public transport operator Metlink, Scott Gallacher, said: "The physical distancing requirements that the government will still have in play at alert level 2 does place a huge limit on the capacity of our trains, buses and ferries.

"We're coming in at about a third, or slightly over a third, of our usual capacity."

Other measures on Wellington public transport at alert level 2 are:

  • Possibly more services at non-peak times
  • Free travel on buses and trains, at least initially
  • The Eastbourne ferry restarting as early as 18 May

However, the capital does not so far have an app like Auckland's that shows what seats are left on a bus.

Canterbury's public transport operator ECan said it could not comment while it waited for formal seating guidelines from the Ministry for Transport.

The office

Business leaders have voiced the hope that the return of officer workers could deliver the life and money the CBDs needed.

"If we can contribute to that, you know, we are a reasonably large population in the cities that we work from, and everyone enjoys an urban environment that has vitality and a sense of social cohesion," Wendelborn said.

Lund said if alert level 3 was the "waiting room" as the prime minister described it, then alert level 2 looked like "we're out in the field, but we have to play safe".

There should be no legal comeback on employers if a worker contracted the virus, if they could show they had taken reasonable precautions, such as with 1m distancing in the office and 2m from customers, and hygiene and cleaning measures, and contact tracing, Lund said.

The top three tips she said, were:

  • Have a plan for all the above safety measures
  • Most importantly, share the plan with workers - "Don't presume that workers and others know what to do, because they don't"
  • Review the plan to see if it was working

The commute did not let the employer off the hook entirely.

"They are not legally liable for a worker who might be exposed while travelling to work.

"But I think it would be within their responsibilities to support workers' health in considering ways of them getting to work - so do they travel off peak so the demand's not so heavy."

The government said it would put out more details of life under alert level 2 in due course.

WorkSafe said it would get back to RNZ in due course to queries about lifts and shared space in buildings.

The Public Service Association (PSA) said it preferred 2m distancing between workers as part of its principles for returning to workplaces.

"People need to feel secure about returning to the workplace," the PSA said.

Worker representatives had to have a say in any planning; PPE had to be on hand if needed; and deep cleaning had to take place, among many other measures, it said.

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