Employers and employees may need to deal with the ramifications of coronavirus. Staff who have recently travelled to China’s Hubei province or come into contact with persons who have, are obviously at risk of infection. The catchment areas are widening constantly. The prospect of standing down employees has to be contemplated.
Employers need to have protocols in place for employees who have recently travelled from infected areas. Failure to do so would likely be a failure of the employer’s duty of care if an infected employee spread the virus in the workplace.
Already, in SE Asia, numerous strategies have been developed to minimise the impact on personal and business’ health. Wherever possible, employees are working from home; visitors to their work sites are obliged to don a face mask; and at-risk employees are required to check and record their temperature twice daily especially if they have visited known infection areas within the incubation period.
These are just a few of the measures being adopted in SE Asia. Understandably, given their proximity, some of these are onerous. All the same, they are indicative of what Australian employers can consider for their own circumstances.
Dealing with coronavirus is a shared responsibility. Under WHS laws, employees have a duty not to adversely affect the health of others. They have an obligation to self-report and stay away from work if they believe they’ve been infected. Information to that effect ought to be disseminated.
Some businesses and institutions may refuse entry to any person, including the employees of suppliers/contractors, without that person taking a specified precaution or other-wise minimising the business’ or institution’s risk. This may impact on an employee’s capacity to be gainfully employed.
Employees may have children affected by school bans on those who have recently travelled from infected areas. For some, there will be difficulties coping with alternative arrangements for children at short notice. Employers should be ready to respond to additional requests for flexible hours and leave in respect of this development.
In situations like this, it is possible that assistance given by employers to their staff, like accommodation expenses if they were stranded due to quarantine, may be exempt from fringe benefits tax. So employers should check (see link below) if there is some relief available there.
If matters escalate, a key question in all of this is whether or not any absence enforced by the employer is paid or unpaid and that will depend on the circumstances – there is no blanket unfettered right to stand-down employees without pay.
Standing down of employees without pay can occur where a stoppage of work arises for a cause for which the employer cannot be reasonably held responsible. The Fair Work Com-mission can review employer decisions to do this if an employee is aggrieved, so there is a safety net to challenge alleged abuses of that process.
Fair Work Act, Stand Down
ATO Newsroom – Helping employees in emergencies
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