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Covid-19 and the Workplace – What are the Rules Now?

Published 23 Jan 2024

Covid-19 has become an accepted part of life in many respects now. To that end, many of the rules and ‘tough attitudes’ towards covid-19 have diminished, or have been dismantled entirely. But what are the rules now, and how is covid-19 still relevant to the workplace? These are some common questions in the context of increasing covid-19 case numbers over the summer period. Employers Assistance has prepared some commentary regarding the key issues in this area to help employers.

The Wage Subsidy

Employers cannot claim the wage subsidy for employees who are unable to work due to covid-19. The Wage Subsidy Scheme ended on 15 August 2023.

What is the Isolation Period?

There is no longer a mandatory isolation period if a person has covid-19, but the Ministry of Health still recommends people self-isolate for five days – even for mild symptoms.

What if an Employee has Covid-19?

If an employee has covid-19, then in the first instance they should be using their paid sick leave entitlement and staying away from the workplace, unless they can work from home, and are well enough to do so. This ensures they can recover effectively and reduce the risk of further spread.

If an employee does not have any paid sick leave entitlement, then the employer may consider offering other options, e.g. paid sick leave in advance, or perhaps the employee using some of their annual leave entitlement (by agreement). However, if the employee is not agreeable to alternative options, and the employer directs the employee to remain away from work due to having covid-19, then the safest option would be to give them paid discretionary sick leave. This approach should help strike the right balance in terms of health & safety considerations, and ensuring the employee is not financially disadvantaged by the employer’s direction to not work due to having covid-19 where they have no paid sick leave available.

Alternatively, if the employee has exhausted all of their paid sick leave entitlement, then the employer would have the option to simply treat the period as unpaid sick leave. However, this approach may place strain on the employment relationship and/or lead to a dispute - but if an employee is sick, then they should not be at the workplace, so directing an employee to take unpaid sick leave is an entirely plausible position where there is no paid sick leave entitlement available, and where the employer is not prepared to consider other alternatives.

Another option an employer could consider is increasing paid sick leave entitlement – currently the Holidays Act 2003 provides for a minimum of 10 days paid sick leave entitlement, which can be increased should the employer want to offer that. However, an employer is under no legal obligation to do this.

Verifying Covid-19 Infections

If an employer has doubts about whether an employee has covid-19, or not, then they have the option of asking them to provide verifying information, e.g. the test result, reporting test result via My Covid Record/Health New Zealand, or potentially requiring a medical certificate from a registered health professional. Anyone who reports a positive rapid antigen test (RAT) result, or has had a positive PCR test, will receive a confirmation text message from Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand.

Requiring Covid-19 Vaccinations

The Government has dropped all its mandatory vaccination requirements, e.g. for the New Zealand Defence Force.

Private employers may still have mandatory vaccination requirements, but they must have a legitimate health and safety basis to for this, along with supporting health & safety assessments to show that mandatory vaccination is justified and consistent with public health advice. For example - a private residential care home with vulnerable people with serious health issues, or respite service where risks around covid-19 infections are potentially more serious may be the sort of workplaces where mandatory vaccination is still warranted.

Most employers are no longer requiring employees to be ‘fully vaccinated’ for covid-19 and have removed requirements around compulsory vaccination in line with the Government’s approach.