Many questions arise at the moment about Employment and the Coronavirus. The By Lawyers Employment Law Guide and the 101 Employment Law Answers reference manual located within that publication can assist subscribers to advise their clients, whether employers or employees.
In addition, our author Brad Petley, an accredited specialist in Workplace Relations, has prepared a timely article on the issues that practitioners and their clients need to consider. This article has been added to the By Lawyers Employment Law Guide, under the Reference Materials folder. The text of Mr Petley’s article is reproduced here for general assistance:
Employment and the Coronavirus
Employers have legal obligations to ensure the health and safety of their employees and contractors, and also to ensure that the health and safety of members of the public is not put at risk from the conduct of their business or undertaking. This includes managing the risk of exposure to and spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace.
Health risks such as Coronavirus need to be carefully and sensitively managed, as they can give rise to a risk of claims of discrimination, unfair treatment and even unfair dismissal.
Therefore, employers should ensure they act fairly and on the basis of reliable and current medical information. Similarly, employers should not permit or encourage their employees to target or treat adversely any particular demographic in the workplace.
There are legal protections against discrimination or adverse action based on race, ethnicity, national origin or impairment – which can include disease or illness. In an atmosphere of heightened anxiety due to the impact of Coronavirus, it important that employees’ emotions and conduct are managed by clear and open communication from senior management.
The rapidly changing situation with the Coronavirus pandemic means that many employers will be focused on reducing their labour costs in the current business climate. To reduce labour costs employers may consider options such as:
- Asking employees to take their accrued paid leave such as annual leave and long service leave;
- Implementing stand-downs pursuant to s 524 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth); or
- Implementing redundancies.
Under the Fair Work Act full-time and part-time national system employees are entitled to 10 days personal/carer’s leave each year of service. The entitlement accumulates progressively.
Employees who access their accrued personal/carer’s leave due to injury or illness such as Coronavirus, are considered to be temporarily absent from work and, as such, are protected from dismissal because of their illness or injury: see s 352.
That does not mean that an employee on personal/carer’s leave, who is suffering from Coronavirus, cannot be required to obey reasonable and lawful OHS based instructions intended to minimise the risk of the person spreading disease in the workplace. For example, an employee diagnosed with COVID-19 who disobeyed an instruction not to attend the workplace unless cleared medically would risk disciplinary action.
An employer may stand down an employee during a period in which the employee cannot usefully be employed due to circumstances for which the employer cannot reasonably be held responsible.
The employer does not pay wages for the period of a stand down. This is not a deferment but a pause during the stand-down in the obligation to pay wages.
An employee stood down continues to accrue entitlements to annual leave and personal/carer’s leave under the National Employment Standards, as well as an entitlement to a public holiday that falls on a day the employee would ordinarily work during the stand-down period: see. s 524.
For a redundancy-based dismissal, employees who are dismissed on the grounds of a ‘genuine redundancy’ are not eligible to bring an unfair dismissal application: see s 385(d).
A genuine redundancy occurs where:
- the person’s employer no longer required the person’s job to be performed by anyone because of changes in the operational requirements of the employer’s enterprise; and
- the employer has complied with any obligation in a modern award or enterprise agreement that applied to the employment to consult about the redundancy.
A genuine redundancy does not occur if it would have been reasonable in all the circumstances for the person to be redeployed within:
- the employer’s enterprise; or
- the enterprise of an associated entity of the employer.
When interviewing a client who claims to have been dismissed due to the Coronavirus, it is important to ascertain the basis of the client’s belief.
If there is evidence supporting the claim that the virus was the reason for the dismissal, then a claim for unfair dismissal or breach of general protections provisions may be available.
– Brad Petley solicitor is the main author of the By Lawyers Employment Law guides. He will continue to update our subscribers regarding Employment and the Coronavirus as circumstances demand.