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Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic – Considerations for Your Workplace

  • COVID-19
  • Published 19.03.2020

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic is seeing the workplace landscape change day by day.

Here are a few things to consider for your workplace.

1. WHS Obligations

  1. Employers have a duty under WHS legislation to provide information to employees about health and safety in the workplace.
  2. Employers have a duty to eliminate or reduce risks and hazards at work, monitor the health of employees and monitor the conditions at any workplace under their management and control.
  3. Some suggestions:
    1. Ideally, regular updates should be provided to employees about the status of actions taken or proposed as part of the organisation’s response to the Coronavirus emergency that are consistent with information provided by the Department of Health and WHO. Updates in our view should include:

      A.  recent information and data received regarding the increase or decrease in people diagnosed with the condition and the geographical location (by State, or local region if the data is available) of the affected people;

      B. recommendations from government health services regarding good hygiene and harm minimisation practices; and

      C. messages relating to working from home, videoconferencing, keeping in touch.

    2. Information and updates should be designed to minimise fear and anxiety.
    3. Display signage reminding people to wash their hands regularly and thoroughly.
    4. Consider installing hand sanitiser dispensers in bathrooms, meeting rooms and high pedestrian traffic areas such as reception areas.
    5. Remind employees that they should not present at work if they are unwell, and they should sneeze or cough into their elbows and not their hands.
    6. Employees who share equipment such as phones or laptops should wipe down this equipment with a sanitising wipe after use.
    7. Ensure cleaners are also appropriately cleaning hard surface areas, kitchens, bathrooms and common areas.
    8. Consider remote working options and alternative working options, e.g. 50% of staff on a week on week off rotation.
    9. Key personnel risk minimisation – consider working in separate offices, not being in the same room together and requiring separate travel arrangements.
    10. Maintain a list of employees:

      A. who have travelled to an affected area since the beginning of 2020; and

      B. who have suffered or are suffering flu like symptoms since the virus was first detected.

    11. Ensure that there is no discrimination. Employers cannot discriminate based on health grounds or race.

2. Sick Leave/Annual Leave

  1. What if employees cannot attend work because they have or are suspected of having Coronavirus or they are caring for someone in this situation?
    1. Full-time and part-time employees who cannot come to work because they are sick with Coronavirus can take paid sick leave.
    2. In the first instance, employees should use their paid personal/carer’s leave entitlements. If sick/carer’s leave is exhausted, employees may take annual leave or long service leave, or leave without pay.
    3. Employers can direct employees who are sick with the Coronavirus not to come to work and to get medical clearance from a doctor before returning to work (it should be noted that given the increased pressure on health services, ideally medical clearances should only be sought from those who have had Coronavirus or been in close contact with someone who has had Coronavirus).
    4. Employers cannot require an employee to take sick or carer’s leave. However, the employee is not entitled to be paid during a forced leave period, unless they use their accrued leave entitlements.
    5. Independent contractors are not employees and do not have any paid leave entitlements under the Fair Work Act 2009  (Cth).
  2. What if an employee needs to look after a family member or a member of their household who is sick with Coronavirus or a related circumstance?
    1. In these circumstances, employees are entitled to take paid carer’s leave to the extent that it has not been exhausted.
    2. Employers should consider whether the employee can access their paid personal/carer’s leave entitlements or annual leave.
    3. Under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), casual employees are entitled to 2 days of unpaid carer’s leave per occasion.
    4. Full-time and part-time employees can take unpaid carer’s leave if they have no paid sick or carer’s leave left.
  3. What if an employee is quarantined or a person is required to be in self-isolation?
    1. If an employer cannot offer an employee work because of a shutdown required in an emergency situation, or the employee cannot attend work because of being in self-isolation, the employee is not entitled to be paid, unless they use their accrued annual leave, sick leave, or long service leave.
    2. However, the employer may consider a working from home arrangement for those who are in quarantine/self-isolation, in which case the employees would be paid for their working from home days.
    3. Where an employer directs a full-time or part-time employee not to work due to workplace health and safety risks, the employee could be entitled to be paid while the direction applies subject any applicable enterprise agreement, award, or employment contract that contains provisions regarding such situations.
  4. What if an employee wants to stay at home as a precaution?
    1. Working from home arrangements are usually agreed between an employer and employee
    2. Employees will need to request to work from home or to take some form of paid or unpaid leave.
    3. Employers should treat these requests as you would treat other applications for this type of leave.
  5. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic poses complex issues for employers who have to balance their obligations to employees with business and commercial outcomes. We recommend that you seek specific legal advice before taking any actions or making policies around matters like quarantining and isolation leave.

3. Travel

  1. Employers should consider whether any scheduled international business travel (or interstate travel given the current conditions) is necessary in the current environment. It may be that other communication options will suffice.
  2. You should also review your insurance coverage for upcoming travel
  3. Employers can direct employees not to undertake work-related travel if this is necessary to meet workplace health and safety obligations or is otherwise a lawful and reasonable direction.
  4. Employers are unlikely to be able to direct an employee not to undertake private travel.
  5. However, it is noted that presently the government has imposed a level 4 travel ban.

4. What are you asking visitors to do?

  1. Consider limiting any non-essential visitors.
  2. Prior to the arrival of any visitors, consider requiring visitors to confirm in writing that:
    1. they have not been to a country considered to be at higher risk in the past 14 days;

    2. they have not been exposed to a person who has been diagnosed with Coronavirus in the past 14 days;

    3. they have not been exposed to a person who has been in contact with a person who has been diagnosed with Coronavirus in the past 14 days; or

    4. they are not feeling unwell.

  3. Keep a register of visitors.

  4. Displaying Coronavirus information material in reception areas, and/or in email footers that is consistent with guidance coming from the WHO. We suggest you consider this approach to indicate to customers/stakeholders that you have expectations about what they should do while in your workplace.

5. Meetings

  1. Consider how meetings are conducted - can they be conducted other than face-to-face.
  2. Formal meetings/gatherings – consider allocated seating, one seat spacing and etc.

6. External Events

  1. You should consider advising staff not attend events if they:
    1. have been to a country considered to be at higher risk in the past 14 days;
    2. have been exposed to a person who has been diagnosed with Coronavirus in the past 14 days;
    3. have been exposed to a person who has been in contact with a person who has been diagnosed with Coronavirus in the past 14 days; or
    4. are feeling unwell.

7. Privacy Issues

  1. Employers may wish to request information about their employees’ health, and they may intend to disclose the identity of affected employees to others in the workplace.
  2. Private health information is strictly regulated in Australia, and breaches may undermine trust within the employment relationship as well as result in penalties.
  3. Specific privacy laws will depend on the jurisdiction in which the employer is based.
  4. Employers should consider its privacy obligations before identifying any employees that may be affected.

8. Some Helpful Websites


If you would like to discuss any of the above or require any further information or advice, please do not hesitate to contact TurksLegal.

The information contained on this note is for general guidance only and does not constitute legal advice. You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of such information. Appropriate legal and professional advice should be sought based upon your particular circumstances.