The emergence and spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) over the past few days presents a potential risk to Queensland small businesses. If you're an employer you need to know your obligations and plan how you might respond if coronavirus impacts your workplace more directly than just running out of toilet paper.
Employers should, however, at all times be conscious of their particular legal obligations that will apply under the Fair Work Act 2009, respective State and Territory WHS legislation and workers compensation legislation, enterprise agreements, awards, contracts and policies and should seek further advice where necessary.
The content on this website is for general informational purposes only, it may not be applicable to your organisation and does not constitute legal advice. You should seek advice before acting or relying on any of the content.
How bad is it?
The current situation is ever-evolving the Department of Health website has the most comprehensive information on the coronavirus.
Make or update a plan nowCurrently, there is no requirement to undertake a separate risk assessment in the workplace for coronavirus and the control measures for prevention should be approached like every other viral disease in the workplace.
If you haven't already, every business should spend time now working up a plan for how they will deal with a pandemic if the outbreak worsens. If the risk doesn't eventuate, you'll at least have done all the groundwork for next flu season. This WHS risk management framework provides a good basis for this.The Queensland Government's Workplace Health & Safety office is the best place to get advice about managing coronavirus health risk.
Communicate with your team
Employees are likely to be anxious about the recent declared COVID-19 pandemic, and could have questions about what will happen to their working arrangements and employment.
Australia's model Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws require a person conducting a business or undertaking to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace. This includes providing and maintaining a work environment that is without risk to health and safety.
Employers also have a duty under WHS legislation to provide information to workers about health and safety in the workplace. You should provide regular updates to workers about the status of COVID-19 that are consistent with information provided by the Department of Health and WHO. Safety regulators in Australia have all published guidance material for employer responses to influenza pandemics generally and we recommend that you familiarise yourself with the guidance material.
You value your people so we don't need to tell you that you should be open and up-front with them about how you're dealing with the risks.Consider how you will update your staff and explain your decisions. It's important to provide a chance for your team to ask questions and state their concerns. Remember you have a legal duty to consult your staff on workplace health and safety matters.
Inform your employees to advise you if they believe they are at risk of CoV infection or have symptoms, and refer to their GP, to determine actions and fitness for work based on accurate and up-to-date medical information. You can view the latest information on the status of CoV here.
For staff travelling overseas, refer to Smart Traveller and carefully consider travel on a case-by-case basis.
Managing health and safety in the workplace
Employers have a duty to provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees.
This includes identifying risks to health or safety associated with potential exposure to COVID-19 and taking measures to control these risks.
Employers are taking various measures to the control the health risks to their workforces, including:
- providing adequate facilities to enable good hygiene practices (e.g. soap, hand sanitiser, signage and reminders);
- limiting or banning non-essential work travel;
- developing infection control policies and procedures; and
- directing employees to comply with quarantine measures, particularly following travel to high risk locations.
As the situation and corresponding medical advice is constantly changing, it is critical that employers keep up to speed with the latest information.
We encourage employees and employers to work together to find appropriate solutions that suit the needs of individual workplaces and staff. This may include taking different forms of leave, working from home, or taking extra precautions in the workplace.
For information about health and safety in the workplace, go to:
- The Department of Health - for the latest information and advice about coronavirus.
- Safe Work Australia - for information and referrals about dealing with coronavirus in the workplace.
- Your State or Territory workplace health and safety body.
Full and part-time employees who can't come to work because they are sick can take paid sick leave. If an employee needs to look after a family member or member of the employee's household who is sick with coronavirus, or suffering an unexpected emergency, they are entitled to take paid carer's leave.
What happens if an employee or their family member is sick with coronavirus?
Casual employees are entitled to 2 days of unpaid carer's leave per occasion. Full and part-time employees can take unpaid carer's leave if they have no paid sick or carer's leave left.An employee must give their employer evidence of the illness or unexpected emergency if their employer asks for it.
You can find more information on the requirements of available leave on the links below.
What if an employee is stuck overseas or required to be quarantined?
Employees should contact their employer immediately if they are unable to attend work because they can't return from overseas or are required to enter quarantine because of the coronavirus.You can find up-to-date information on quarantine requirements on the Department of Health's website .
The Fair Work Act does not have specific rules for these kinds of situations so employees and employers need to come to their own arrangement. This may include:
- taking sick leave if the employee is sick
- taking annual leave
- taking any other leave available to them (such as long service leave or any other leave available under an award, enterprise agreement or contract of employment)
- arranging any other paid or unpaid leave by agreement between the employee and the employer.
What if an employee wants to stay home as a precaution?
If an employee wants to stay at home as a precaution against being exposed to coronavirus, they will need to make a request to work from home (if possible) or to take some form of paid or unpaid leave, such as annual leave or long service leave. These requests are subject to the normal leave application process in the workplace.Employees are encouraged to discuss their level of risk of contracting coronavirus with their doctor, workplace health and safety representative or the appropriate State or Territory workplace health and safety body.
What if an employer wants their staff to stay home?
Under work health and safety laws, employers are required to ensure the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace (as far as is reasonably practical). Workers also have responsibilities under those laws.If an employee is at risk of infection from coronavirus (for example, because the employee has recently travelled through mainland China, or has been in close contact with someone who has the virus), you should request the employee seek medical clearance from a doctor and to work from home (if possible), or not work during the risk period.
Where an employer directs a full-time or part-time employee not to work, the employee would ordinarily be entitled to be paid while subject to the direction. You should consider your obligations under any applicable enterprise agreement, award, employees' contracts of employment, and workplace policies.Employers need to balance their legal obligations, including those relating to anti-discrimination.
You can find up-to-date information on quarantine requirements on the Department of Health's website .
Keep it cleanMake sure you reinforce good hygiene practices at work and at home. That means washing hands regularly and thoroughly. You might want to consider putting hand sanitiser in bathrooms, meeting rooms and other commonly used areas, and ask staff to wipe down shared equipment like phones or laptops after every use. It's not a bad idea to inform clients and visitors of your hygiene expectations at your front desk.
Managing employees and Leave entitlements
What do you do if an employee is feeling unwell and suffering flu like symptoms? According to the WHO website the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose or sore throat. These symptoms are usually mild and begin gradually.
If an employee presents with these symptoms they should be directed to follow advice from the Australia Government and seek urgent medical attention if they suspect they have contracted COVID-19. The health and safety of staff and those they come into contact with must be an employer's top priority. This should dictate the approach any employer takes to
responding to employees that may have come into contact with the COVID-19 virus.
An employee can (of course) avail themselves of their accrued sick leave if they take time off work due to being ill with the COVID-19 virus. Under the Fair Work Act, national system employees (other than those engaged on a casual basis), are entitled to 10 days each year paid sick leave (personal) for each year of service. This entitlement accrues on a progressive basis during each year of service and many employees will have an accrual in excess of 10 days. There is no limit on the number of days of accrued leave that can be taken as personal leave.
JOBKEEPER Fundinghe Federal Government has announced it will pay $1500 a fortnight for employees hired by a business hurt by the COVID-19 crisis for up to six months.
Around 6 million workers will receive a fortnightly payment of $1,500 (before tax) through their employer.The payment ensures eligible employers remain connected to their workforce and will help businesses restart quickly when the crisis is over.
Details of the package can be found here.Register your interest on the link below.
Coronavirus business support from the Federal Government
If your business has been affected by the coronavirus, the government has a team of customer representatives who can help you on 13 28 46. The team will be available to assist you with extended hours between 7am - 9pm across Australia, Monday to Sunday.
Updated Information www.business.gov.au
Visit business.gov.au for details on the complete assistance available for:
· Support available for sole traders
· Support available for employers
· Support available for companies
The Australian Government has announced measures to support businesses impacted by the coronavirus.
- Boosting cash flow for employers
- Up to $100,000 to eligible small and medium-sized businesses, and not for-profits (NFPs) that employ people, with a minimum payment of $20,000. This is made up of the below components.
·Under the enhanced scheme, employers will receive a payment equal to 100 per cent of their salary and wages withheld (up from 50 per cent), with the maximum payment being increased from $25,000 to $50,000. In addition, the minimum payment is being increased from $2,000 to $10,000.
- ·An additional payment is also being introduced in the July October 2020 period. Eligible entities will receive an additional payment equal to the total of all of the Boosting Cash Flow for Employers payments they have received. This means that eligible entities will receive at least $20,000 up to a total of $100,000 under both payments.
Temporary Flexibility in the Corporations Act 2001
· Temporarily increasing the threshold at which creditors can issue a statutory demand on a company and the time companies have to respond to statutory demands they receive.
· The ATO will tailor solutions for owners or directors of business that are currently struggling due to the Coronavirus, including temporary reduction of payments or deferrals, or withholding enforcement actions including Director Penalty Notices and wind-ups.
Coronavirus SME Guarantee Scheme
· The Government will provide a guarantee of 50 per cent to SME lenders to support new short-term unsecured loans to SMEs. The Scheme will guarantee up to $40 billion of new lending.· The Government is cutting red tape by providing a temporary exemption from responsible lending obligations for lenders providing credit to existing small business customers. This reform will help small businesses get access to credit quickly and efficiently.
Reserve Bank of Australia Term Funding Facility for the Banking System
· Banks will have access to at least $90 billion in funding at a fixed interest rate of 0.25 per cent. This will reinforce the benefits of a low cash rate by reducing funding costs for banks, which in turn will help reduce interest rates for borrowers. To encourage lending to businesses, the facility offers additional low-cost funding to banks if they expand their business lending, with particular incentives applying to new loans to SMEs.
· The Government is providing the Australian Office of Financial Management (AOFM) with $15 billion to invest in structured finance markets used by smaller lenders. This program will assist smaller lenders, who will not benefit from the RBA's term funding facility, to maintain access to funding and support competition in the lending market. This in turn will help keep mortgages and other borrowing costs for businesses low.
Income Support for Individuals
· Over the next six months, the Government is temporarily expanding eligibility to income support payments and establishing a new, time-limited Coronavirus supplement to be paid at a rate of $550 per fortnight.
Standing staff down
You're likely to be asked by employees whether they'll be stood down with or without pay if a pandemic is declared.
It's critical that you know your rights and obligations under Fair Work. CCIQ members can call their HR Helpline anytime on 1300 731 988 to double-check their plans and announcements are within the law.
Under the Fair Work Act, an employee can only be stood down without pay if they can't do useful work because of equipment break down, industrial action or a stoppage of work for which the employer can't be held responsible. The most common scenarios are severe and inclement weather or natural disasters.
Enterprise agreements and employment contracts can have different or extra rules about when an employer can stand down an employee without pay.
Employers need to be aware that the impact of COVID-19 being covered by workers compensation is a legal question that will differ by jurisdiction and circumstance. Any workers' compensation claim will require the person considering entitlement (whether it be an insurer or self-insurer, a Regulator or court / tribunal) to conduct a highly fact-sensitive enquiry.
Nevertheless employers should be very careful to guard against the risks of employee contracting COVID-19 at the workplace and should ensure that any mitigating steps they take in response to coronavirus are measured.
Where employers are concerned about this issue we strongly recommend they seek specific legal advice based on their circumstances.
Am I covered under insurance?
Don't forget to check your insurance policies. Business interruption insurance may cover lost income after a disaster. If you're not covered for disease-related disruption you may be able to ask for it to be added by your insurer, but they are within their rights to refuse or to ask for a higher premium.
Department of Employment Small Business and Training support
Small business impacted by Coronavirus can contact the Department of Employment Small Business and Training through www.business.qld.gov.au/starting-business/advice-support/support/novel-coronavirus. All calls are then actioned in the local region for personalised assistance.
Queensland COVID-19 jobs support loans
You may be eligible for a loan to retain employees and maintain your operations.
The $500 million concessional loan facility will include low interest loans of up to $250,000 for carry on finance with an initial 12-month interest free period for businesses to retain staff.
Register your interest through the Queensland Rural and Industry Development Authority or contact 1800 623 946.
Support from Banks
If you're dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, or facing the impacts of drought, bushfire or flood, there are practical ways your bank can help.
Australian banks have hardship teams ready to help you, depending on your circumstances.
Assistance could include:
- deferring loan payments, waiving fees and charges,
- helping with debt consolidation,
- waiving penalties for early withdrawal of a term deposit, or
- deferring upcoming credit card payments and increasing emergency limits.
You can contact your bank's financial hardship team on the web or on the phone.