Coronavirus: A guide for employers and employees

For many people, a forced two-week holiday from work sounds like a dream. 

In reality though, it puts unnecessary financial pressure on both employers and employees. 

Balancing practical needs like running a business and making sure both staff and customers are safe as coronavirus continues to spread is a delicate line. 

So what should employers and employees do to make sure any risk related to COVID-19 is dealt with responsibly?

A clean workplace

The first step, according to guidelines released by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is to make sure workplaces are clean and hygienic. 

That means that all surfaces such as desks, computers, phones etc, are wiped with disinfectant regularly.

Employees should also be reminded to wash their hands regularly with soap and water.

Tissues and face masks should be made available for people with runny noses or coughs, as well as closed bins where they can be thrown out, WHO recommends.

What happens if employees suspect they have been exposed to the virus?

According to WHO, anyone who has recently travelled to somewhere where coronavirus is spreading should monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days and take their temperature twice a day.

"If they develop even a mild cough or low-grade fever (i.e. a temperature of 37.3C or more) they should stay at home and self-isolate."

The New Zealand Ministry of Health goes a step further than this, urging anyone who has been in or transited through mainland China, Iran, northern Italy or the Republic of Korea in the past two weeks to register with Healthline (0800 358 5453) and immediately go into self-isolation.

If this is the case for you, your boss should let you work from home or a self-contained place, says the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

As both MBIE and FIRST Union stress, employers are required by law to continue paying anyone working in such a situation.

If an employee is forced to stay away from work but is not sick employers can still choose to grant them paid leave, but are not legally entitled to.

"Technically the employee is not entitled to sick leave, as they are not sick. However, the employer could allow the employee to take annual leave or sick leave, advanced annual or sick leave, or take unpaid leave or work from home (if suitable)," says MBIE.

"If no other leave alternative is available, the employer does not have to pay the employee, but the employer should consider offering the employee additional leave (special paid leave). This would avoid the employee coming to work, and consequently the possibility of infecting other employees, customers or suppliers."

In any case where a person had been confirmed with COVID-19, the Ministry of Health said it would "undertake contact tracing and contact management".

"This would involve working with, and providing advice to any local institutions or businesses where the case may have infected others."

For people showing symptoms

The advice for anyone showing symptoms of coronavirus is simple: stay away from work.

In most cases, this means taking sick leave. However, whether this leave is paid or not, is more complicated.

"Employers and employees can't assume that time away from work in these circumstances would be either paid or unpaid without looking at the employment agreement, workplace policies and the specific circumstances," MBIE says in its guidelines.

Providing a worker is sick and has sick leave owing, the procedure is fairly cut and dry.

If an employee has used up all their sick leave though, MBIE recommends they ask their boss for sick leave in advance, use their annual leave or ask for annual leave in advance. 

The boss could also agree to provide additional sick leave or special paid leave.

Although on paper it may seem clear-cut, in real life the situation is not so black and white, says FIRST Union.

"There's a tension and a very real risk here for retail workers, who often end up working while sick because of the pressure not to call in and 'let the team down'," said Tali Williams, FIRST Union Secretary for Retail, Finance and Commerce.

"Obviously, they shouldn't be doing working while sick in the first place, but it's especially difficult for people who don't have enough paid sick leave remaining to take adequate time off to rest and recover, coronavirus or not.

"It's an unfortunate truth that dealing with sickness, serious or not, is usually secondary to getting paid for retail workers - many of them are struggling on minimum wage and practically speaking, they cannot afford to miss a shift at work."

What if a business has to temporarily close due to coronavirus?

For some businesses, the pressure from coronavirus could force them to shut down temporarily while they ride out the storm. In that case, employers are urged to negotiate with their employees to see if they can agree to take some kind of leave.

But if no agreement is reached, employers must pay their workers.

The exception to this, however, is if the business is closed to a Government mandate or civil emergency, says MBIE.