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Pros and Cons in Employing Students

Published 09 Apr 2016

For most tertiary students this time of year signals the start of studies, the start of paying their own bills and the start of looking for employment.   Students bring with them a wealth of fresh ideas, flexibility and a savviness with technology, but can also trip up those Employers who do not understand how student jobs, or behaviour, should be managed under New Zealand’s employment law.

Sick Leave
The general student population are often given the reputation, deservingly or not, of playing hard and working…not so hard.  At some stage or another, Employers who take on students will find themselves in sick leave disputes – do students qualify? Are they actually sick? Do they need to prove it?
Whether students, or any other employees are entitled to sick leave is dependent on what type of employee they are, how long they have been employed for and the number of hours they work.  A student who is employed in a part-time role will become entitled to five days six leave after six months’ continuous service.   Students whose employment has not been continuous, or are employed on a ‘casual’ basis, will still be entitled to sick leave if, during those six months, they have worked:

  • an average of at least 10 hours per week, including
  • at least one hour per week or 40 hours per month.

Sick leave should be paid where it is a day that the student would have otherwise worked and they should be paid at their relevant daily pay or average daily pay. 

If an Employer is suspicious that a student is simply ‘pulling a sickie’, an Employer has the right to request proof of their sickness.  Where the student has been sick for 3 or more calendar days, the Employee will have to pay for the cost of providing the proof of illness.  If the student has been sick for fewer than 3 days, it is the Employer’s responsibility to pay the costs of getting proof.  Employers do not need reasonable grounds to suspect the student is not actually sick before requesting proof within these first three days.   In today’s modern world of social media, Employers have been known to find photos of their ‘sick’ employee enjoying themselves that same day at one event or another.  In this situation Employers must still go through the disciplinary process and make a genuine inquiry into the truthfulness of the Employee’s sickness.

Contrary to popular opinion, being hungover is a legitimate sickness and a student who rings in to say they have had too much to drink the night before, and cannot attend work, is just as entitled to claim sick leave as any other employee with the flu.  The Court defines ‘sick’ as ‘unfitness for health reasons of any nature and however caused’.  So, even where a student has caused their own illness, and morally it is frowned upon to claim sick leave, there is no legal exclusion. An Employee does however remain under a duty to be truthful, and if a student, being hungover, claims to have ‘the flu’ or has ‘ate some raw chicken’, the Employer may have grounds to take disciplinary action.

Casual or Part-Time?
When employing students, Employers can often trip up mislabeling students as casual or part-time employees.  Determining the nature of a student’s employment is important for calculating holiday pay, with part-timers entitled to four weeks’ holiday pay, pro-rated, under the Holidays Act 2003.  Alternatively, eight per cent of gross earnings can be added to casual employees regular pay packets as annual holidays.
The general rule is that students who work a regular pattern, even one hour a week, will be part-timers while those with intermittent and irregular working hours will be casual.  Apart from, say, rosters which are sent out for the coming week or month, casual employees will not know what hours they will be working outside the current roster.  It is important for Employers to be careful that ‘casual’ students do not become part-time employees, by ensuring that the casual nature of the employment is recorded in the individual employment agreement and by continually monitoring the student’s hours.

Zero-Hour Contracts
Due to their flexibility, Employers often take the opportunity to place students on zero-hour contracts.  However, this is now illegal.  If the student and Employer prefer flexibility, they can agree that no minimum hours will be offered to the student, the hours that are offered will be varied and the student does not have to accept any hours offered.  Alternatively, a minimum number of hours can be agreed upon - Employers must pay students for these hours and students must be available for these hours.  Students cannot be required to be available above their agreed hours, unless they are compensated for that availability (such as an on-call rate). Students can also not be restricted from obtaining second jobs, unless there are genuine reasons e.g. loss of knowledge, property or competitive advantage.

Employers can not cancel a student’s shift without giving the student reasonable notice that the work is cancelled, or compensating them for late notice.  The specific notice periods and compensation rates will need to be recorded in the student’s agreement.

Employers can not cancel a student’s shift without giving the student reasonable notice that the work is cancelled, or compensating them for late notice.  The specific notice periods and compensation rates will need to be recorded in the student’s agreement.

Many students struggle to find employment post-graduation and hope to break into well-paid careers through unpaid internships.  However the line is murky between unpaid interns who are volunteering, and interns who have entered into employment relationships and should be given the minimum statutory entitlements, such as minimum wage and holidays.
The Employment Relations Act defines an employee as someone employed to do any work for hire or reward.  If the intern does work that is to the commercial benefit of the employer, and they receive some kind of reimbursement – even if it is below minimum wage – they are likely to be considered an employee.  If Employers wish to have unpaid student interns, they need to make it clear that there is absolutely no expectation of any form of payment. 
Employers should also note that their health and safety obligations are likely to extend to interns or regular volunteers.

Making the Most out of Student Employees
Employing students allows companies to build relationships with, and invest in, potentially future employees.  This helps cut recruitment and training costs in the future.  To make the most out of your students, employers should:

  • make an effort to speak to students and listen to what they have to say;
  • ask for students’ ideas on the work that is being done;
  • keep an eye out for what students show interest in and what they do well;
  • assign students real tasks and give them the chance to work on project that excite them to see what they are capable of;
  • give clear directions on what you want students to do and how you want them to behave;
  • give encouragement and regular feedback on how they are doing;
  • give guidance to help them match their expectations to workplace realities; and
  • encourage an interest in the wider business environment and issues.

Navigating the student workforce, although occupying management resources, can be profitable for any business in the short and long term.  If you would like further information on how to employ, and retain, great employees make sure you check out the Library section of our Toolbox which has a variety of helpful guides.