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Coronavirus vs Business - update

Published 09 Mar 2020

With over 100,000 infected people globally and 2000 Kiwis in NZ self-isolating coronavirus (covid-19) is making its presence felt in New Zealand. It's now very likely the majority of NZ businesses will be affected in some way over the coming months.

An extremely questionable decision from the laboratory union to announce imminent strike action to leverage the situation, you could be forgiven for thinking that things are about to get a lot worse before they get better.

The Government is however, now talking about tax relief and wage subsidies for affected businesses, but not going as far as ceasing another minimum wage hike next month. A "business continuity package" was agreed to by Cabinet on Monday, more details to come in the following week. Wage subsidies were implemented for Canterbury and Kaikoura earthquakes, but this situation is far more wide-reaching so the solution may not be the same.

The Government is saying they will introduce targeted tax help and wage subsidies for businesses hurt by coronavirus, allowing them to keep on employees that they otherwise couldn't afford, and also deferred tax payments and relief for small businesses impacted.

Many medical centres are saying if you suspect you may have contracted covid-19 do not come in for a checkup or test - phone the Government's Healthline dedicated hotline service for covid-19 on:

0800 358 5453

People who have been through China, Iran, Northern Italy, South Korea or have been in close contact with someone who has covid-19 are requested to register with Healthline and self isolate for 14 days.

An employer has a duty of care obligation under the Health & Safety at Work Act 2015 that, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers is paramount and knowingly allowing people who should be in self-isolation in the workplace could be seen as failing to comply. Especially so if a covid-19 outbreak did then ensue.

Its recommended to send a proactive communication on the facts and expectations to all staff.  Communication will be a key principal to insure stability in the workplace.

Some basic rules still apply:

An employer cannot force an employee to take holidays with less than 2 weeks notice. Application of this rule can be used in circumstances where there is a reasonable effect on the operational requirements of the business to reduce staff attendance/productivity due to the effects of virus on the business.

Self-isolating is a precautionary step and does not mean the employee is sick so sick leave doesn't necessarily apply. Only when diagnosed with the virus will sick leave apply and the same can be backdated to cover if required.

If staff are requested to self-isolate, short of an alternative agreement with the employee the employer has to pay for this time. This payment will be additional to any leave entitlements.

If staff are self-isolating based on their own concerns and request payment this should be covered by any leave entitlement or be unpaid.

If you suspect a staff member is sick you can request they attend a medical practitioner at your cost, but with a lot of medical centres instructing patients to call ahead or call Healthline it has it's inherent difficulties. Not all people with symptoms will be tested and the medical practitioner will evaluate each case and make their recommendations for testing based on numerous factors.

Practical measures for better workplace hygiene can be:

  • washing (minimum of 20 seconds) and drying hands regularly and well
  • reaffirming staff should stay at home if they are or feel sick
  • covering coughs and sneezes.
  • providing hand sanitiser products
  • face masks
  • disposable gloves
  • allow variable hours
  • working from home
  • funding staff cell-phone/wifi bills
  • introducing temporary shifts
  • have meetings as phone or video conferences instead
  • remove magazines from common areas
  • advise staff not to gather in groups and to separate from each other by at least 1m
Hopefully the Government will come up with some suitably tangible responses over the coming weeks, particularly in light of their insistence to hike the minimum wage rate again in 3 weeks time.