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Coronavirus at Work

Published 09 Feb 2020

Clearly Coronavirus has well overtaken the SARs outbreak of 2003 with fatalities past 1000 now.

Although the likelihood of an imported case here in NZ is high, a local widespead outbreak is still considered unlikely.

People being advised to 'self-isolate' for 14 days if worried about their symptoms is seemingly NZ's official response at this point, but where does this leave the business owner when staff ring in sick to comply with this?

Under the Holidays Act employees qualify for sick leave if they are sick, or their spouse or dependents require care provided they have worked for you for the previous 6 months and not having used all their entitlement.

However, being told to self-isolate as a precaution does not qualify them as sick, therefore generally sick leave does not apply. We are however seeing in these circumstances some employers being lenient and accepting sick leave requests in order to protect their workplaces and other staff. Essentially if you as the employer agree to allow the employee to use their sick leave that's the end of the story, but are staff really going to be happy using all their sick leave entitlement in this case as a precautionary measure?

If an employee suspects they may be infected, or an employer suspects a staff member is infected they should immediately seek a medical test. It would be operationally prudent for the Employer to fund this.

The same goes for Annual Holidays or unpaid leave, although the request should come from the employee. The employer cannot force staff to take Annual Holidays without 14 days notice which clearly defeats the purpose anyway.

The employer also has obligations under the Health & Safety at Work Act 2015 to provide a safe work environment. If the employer believes there is a risk of general infection or the workplace is unsafe to operate with a diminished staff compliment they would be in within their rights to close the workplace.

The employment relationship has an over-arching requirement of Good Faith on both sides. For businesses a pragmatic approach to minimise the potential spread of infection should be discussed at all levels and sooner rather than later. It could include measures like;

  • providing hand sanitiser products
  • face masks
  • disposable gloves
  • allow variable hours
  • working from home
  • introducing temporary shifts
  • have meetings as phone or video conferences instead
  • remove magazines from common areas
  • advise staff not to gather in groups and to separate from each other by at least 1m
  • funding medical tests

If such a disaster does eventuate here the Government has acknowledged they may look at some compensation for businesses as part of their 'Action Plan', it would be nice to see ACC coming to the party if an outbreak does eventuate. At this stage however, the bottom line is; if you as the Employer ask an employee to stay home you need to be prepared to pay them to do so.

For more information on Coronavirus itself we suggest contacting the Ministry of Health on their dedicated Coronavirus freephone: 0800 358 5453