Business guide to Coronavirus

Employer's Guide

To assist with handling the evolving situation regarding Coronavirus (COVID-19) we have created a dedicated information source relevant to business owners with employees. If you're a sole trader or a non-employing business, you can find more information relevant to your situation here

How to manage Coronavirus in your workplace

Frequently asked questions

All employers should be taking precautions to actively manage their business’ exposure to health and safety risks arising from coronavirus.

If an employee tells you that they:

  • are feeling unwell and may be suffering flu-like symptoms
  • have been in contact with someone who has or may have been in contact with someone who has Coronavirus, or
  • have travelled to an area affected by the Coronavirus (such as China),

they should be directed to follow the above Australian Government advice and seek medical advice immediately. 

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 an employer takes to responding to employees that may have come into contact with Coronavirus.

It is also important to direct employees to declare any upcoming or recent travel (including areas through which the employees have transited) so that employers can assess the prospect of risks to health and safety arising from staff movements generally; and provide employees with simple information regarding how they can maintain good hygiene. 

If an employee informs you that they have contracted the Coronavirus or need to care for a member of their immediate family or household who has contracted Coronavirus, then they will be entitled to take personal leave under the National Employment Standards (NES).

Personal/carers leave is not available where an employee has come into contact with a person who has Coronavirus or where an employee returns from travel to a high-risk area as outlined above, but is not yet sick themselves.

This is because, to qualify for personal leave, an employee must be “not fit for work” because of an illness or injury affecting them. It is unlikely that this pre-requisite will be met by persons who are not yet diagnosed as ill but merely require isolation.

Given the likely inability to provide personal leave in cases where employees require isolation but have not been positively diagnosed, in most cases, employers should look to utilise practical solutions to address the employee’s absence.

For example:

  • In some cases, employers could permit the employee to work from home. This ensures a level of productivity is retained and will allow the employee to continue to be paid wages during the isolation period.
  • When working from home is unavailable, employers may wish to provide discretionary paid leave to employees so that they do not suffer from a loss of pay during the isolation period.

As an employer, it is worthwhile considering whether discretionary options such as those above can be accommodated. Employers will need to balance the short-term cost associated with these measures against the longer-term benefits that arise both for the employment relationship and the national interest. 

For some businesses, it might not be feasible to pay employees who are required to self-isolate.

If an employer is unwilling or unable to pay employees whilst in isolation and an employee maintains that they are able to work, then employers face a difficult scenario: the employee says they are fit to work, but the employer has concerns that the employee is not fit to work without posing unacceptable safety risks to the workforce. 

The best means of resolving this is to direct the relevant employee to undergo testing if testing is available.

Once the test is undertaken, if the employee is cleared, they are able to return to work (best practice would dictate the employer pays the employee for the relevant period). If the employee tests positive, then they can be permitted to take personal leave for the duration of their absence.

The advice from Australian Business Lawyers & Advisors is:

  • It’s a requirement of any employment contract that employees are required to carry out their employment without endangering the safety of other persons.
  • In order to be paid for their service, employees need to be “ready, willing and able” to work.

These principles will govern an employer’s approach to employees who are told to isolate in circumstances where testing is unavailable (or refused by the employee).

Two scenarios are likely to arise:

Scenario one: In some cases, an employee may have had levels of contact with persons exposed to Coronavirus which means the risk to safety presented by the employee’s presence at work is materially greater than other employees. By way of example, if an employee has just returned from mainland China or has been living with a person who has contracted Coronavirus, the employee will likely present significantly greater risks to the workforce than most other workers. 

Scenario two: In other cases, an employee might have had a level of contact that causes an employer some anxiety but not material concern – by way of example, the employee’s child might have attended a school where there was a Coronavirus diagnosis or the employee may have returned from travel to an area designated by the Australian Government’s health advice as ‘moderate risk’. Whilst there is some risk associated with contact with the relevant employee, the risk might not be materially greater than that posed by other workers who have been to supermarkets, gone to a football match, etc.

In the first scenario, a level of debate is likely to arise. However, provided the employer can demonstrate the relevant employee poses a sufficiently material risk to health and safety that cannot be mitigated, there is a reasonable basis for the employer to contend that the employee must stay away from work on unpaid leave (or annual leave if requested) until such time as the material risk decreases.

In the second scenario, it is unlikely that an employer will have a legitimate basis to direct an employee to stay away from work without pay. Rather, if the employer is directing the employee to remain away from work, the employer will need to pay the employee for the relevant period.

Employers should consider supporting the national objective of quarantining potential infected citizens and suggest that employers explore all avenues to avoid loss of pay for those employees who do the right thing.

Casual employees are not entitled to sick leave. This means that a casual employee who is diagnosed with Coronavirus may be required to refrain from presenting to work without additional payments.

Furthermore, where shifts to casual employees are reduced either on account of business downturn or because the employee has been required to isolate (due to contact or recent travel), the employees will not be entitled to payment during this period. 

No, the big three energy suppliers (AGL, Energy Australia and Origin) are currently operating business as usual with fully-staffed call centres. There are no reports of disruption. 

Australian Business Energy (for all businesses) and the Business Energy Advice Program (for businesses with 6–20 employees, plus those in drought-affected areas with 1–5 employees) are operating normally and will advise on energy saving and cost-reduction options.

Most retailers will offer some form of Financial Hardship Support that can involve deferred billing and partial payment plans. We advise you to contact your supplier to discuss alternative payment options. 

Some retailers (Red Energy and Lumo Energy) have committed to “not foreclose on anyone, particularly small business” concerned about their ability to pay energy bills. 

Telecommunications providers are looking at all measures available to improve access in a mass work from home/ self-isolation scenario. A number of providers have already granted their customers extra data for no cost. 

NBN Co has also announced they will limit non-essential maintenance to minimise scheduled, planned outages in the weeks ahead to maintain network availability as much as possible. 

More measures are likely to be announced in the coming days. We will continue to update this page as information becomes available. 

Water supplies are unaffected by Coronavirus. Although, keep in mind that water restrictions are still in force in many drought affected communities across the country.