COVID-19 – Small/Medium Business owners FAQ answered - as at 30th March 2020

Updated: Apr 2

This is an outline of frequently asked questions I'm getting as a HR consultant to small to medium business owners regarding the COVID-19.


This unprecedented pandemic has the potential to drive significant business and operational impact on us as small business owners. It is critical that we have a clear idea of your options and obligations. I can't stress enough how important lines of communications your employees, as well as clients and third-party entities at this time.


Please note this advice may not be applicable if you have your small business has specific/differing policies, agreements or procedures.


What if workers suspect they have symptoms of COVID-19?


  • It is important that they stay away from work if they have only mild symptoms and follow advice from the department of health.

  • See the nearest emergency hospital for testing, or call the local GP as many pathologists are now able to test for COVID-19

  • They must not return until a clearance is provided or the isolation period is over.


What if an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19?


  • Follow all medical advice to recover from the infection as soon as possible

  • Once cleared from the infection (being given the all-clear from a medical professional) they can return to work.


What if an employee has recently travelled and now is is required to self-isolate due to government direction?


A compulsory self-isolation of 14 days is now prescribed for all people returning from overseas and in some cases crossing state borders. They cannot return to the workplace.


Do I need to pay the employees during this time?

  • Ideally, work from home is available and they are paid as usual.

  • If work from home is not viable/suitable for your business and they are not unwell at this point in time, the employee can utilise their annual/long service leave entitlements if they have enough accrued. If not, it would be unpaid leave.

  • Personal/Sick leave can be used if the staff member is unwell supported by medical evidence


What if an employee OPTs to self-isolate for preventative measures?


If an employee chooses to self isolate the same rules apply as above re payment. If they are home with family and full hours cannot be output then flexible hours options / payments can be discussed. If there is a situation where an employee is fit for work but refuses to attend, they can be directed to attend (assuming reasonable grounds) - see advice in this situation.


What if my business has to close down operations due to COVID-19?


If an employer is required to close down due to a government direction you can stand down your staff without pay. You would need to check any "stand down" provisions in Agreements and refer to FWC if no Agreements in place.


What if I can’t afford to keep staff on?


There are many options. Remember this pandemic won’t last forever. There will be a period of pain for your business and a recovery period, but this is not permanent. So, business continuity plans and staff livelihoods need to be taken very seriously.

Some options are:


Reduced Hours

If you still need staff, but in a reduced capability you can also request this too. Remember to check any applicable enterprise agreement, award, employment contracts or workplace policies that may be in place on any requirements here.


Forced Leave

Can I send my staff on leave? Yes you can, in an effort to keep those employed and jobs open when the downturn and recovery period is over you can request for staff to take either some of their annual leave if your business/employment terms allow and they have enough accrued or unpaid leave. I’m expecting the government to release some sort of assistance shortly for people on unpaid leave.


Redundancy

Please note that this pandemic will pass, avoiding redundancies where possible is important. In some circumstances you may need to make some positions redundant in response to your business downturn. You will be required to pay notice period and redundancy payments for these staff. If unsure what they are, please get in touch. A solid consultation process and proper care needs to be taken for redundancies. Please note the size of your business impacts the payments required and procedure here. Less than 15 staff are guided by the Small Business Code, greater then 15 staff are guided by their agreements and or the Fair Work Act. See advice here if you have not been through this process before.


What if my employee's child's school is closed?


If a school is closed and your employees have school aged children that require to be cared for. You can look at flexible work options (similar to above if the self isolate). If not available they can access their personal leave - this situation ie/ a school closing on short notice and for a short period due to outbreak or concern of COVID-19 is an unexpected emergency for this purpose. Please note - Impending school holidays do not fall into the "emergency" category. At this stage public schools are remaining open.


Am I liable if my staff contract COVID-19 in my workplace?


Generally, No…. BUT your staff health and safety are your responsibility, so you do need to take precautions to protect them and eliminate risks.

The only time liability maybe discussed would be if you knowingly put your staff at risk. IE/ knew COVID-19 was in your workplace and didn’t act on it.


Business Downturn


This IS going to have a significant impact on small business, revenue and productivity. While we all hope this is short term, watch this space on updates to the government stimulus package and any other arrangements that may be available to business owners and employees alike. Check out above re job keeper allowance for businesses that have >30% revenue decrease.


Communication


Listen to your staff and their concerns too. Communication is the key to keep the updates clear on what all parties are to expect.


Watch this space as this is changing at a rapid pace and as you read this - the advice may have changed. Keep up to date FWC via www.health.gov.au

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