Pay options for workers self-isolating during the Omicron outbreak

Amid growing Omicron cases and new self-isolation rules, Newshub asked MBIE and MSD to clarify the rules around use of sick leave and the Government COVID-19 Leave Support Scheme.
Amid growing Omicron cases and new self-isolation rules, Newshub asked MBIE and MSD to clarify the rules around use of sick leave and the Government COVID-19 Leave Support Scheme. Photo credit: Getty Images.

As the number of Omicron cases ramp up, workers who need to self-isolate and can't work from home may be wondering what their options are for getting paid.

It comes as 1160 new cases of COVID-19 are confirmed on Wednesday. Under phase 2 of the Omicron outbreak, which started from 11:59pm on Tuesday, people who test positive for COVID-19 are required to self-isolate for 10 days. The 10-day self-isolation rule also applies to people living in the same household as a confirmed case, who are required to get tested on day eight. Close contacts are required to self-isolate for seven days.  

Employment law still applies to all employment relationships, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) confirms. Normal obligations to keep in regular contact and to act in good faith are "more important than ever".

To help workers and their employers navigate the rules, including when the COVID-19 Leave Support Scheme, and sick leave apply during self-isolation, Newshub asked MBIE and the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to answer basic questions.

Q1. When should sick leave be used during self-isolation?  

The rules around taking sick leave haven't changed, MBIE confirms.

An employee should only take sick leave if they're sick, their spouse or partner is sick, or someone who depends on them for care is sick.  

When an employee is sick with COVID-19 and they have a sick leave entitlement available, they have the right to use their sick leave while they are self-isolating. 

Workers self-isolating because they're a close contact or household contact, and can't work from home, are advised to talk to their employer about their options.

To help them cover pay, employers have the option to apply for the Government Leave Support Scheme. Workers are advised to discuss their options with their employer.

"If they aren't sick, but are required to self-isolate because they are a close contact/household contact and can't perform their job at home, they should discuss with their employer what options are available," an MBIE spokesperson said.

*Q2. What happens if a worker tests positive and has no sick leave available?

If there is no sick leave available, MBIE suggests the worker and their employer discuss and agree on an alternative option.

"If the employee does not have a sick leave entitlement, we encourage employers and employees to consult their employment agreement, discuss, and seek to reach agreement in good faith on what approach will be taken," the MBIE spokesperson said.

Q3. What is the Leave Support Scheme and who does it cover? 

Available through Work and Income, the Leave Support Scheme is available for employers to use. 

It's designed to help cover an employee's wages if they're required to self-isolate and can't work from home. 

This includes people who have COVID-19, are a close contact of a person who has COVID-19, or if they (or their household members) are more at risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

George van Ooyen, group GM client service support, told Newshub people who test positive for COVID-19 and who are household contacts of other household members, may also qualify for the benefit. 

"Household contacts of other household members who have tested positive for COVID-19 are close contacts, and may be eligible for the Leave Support Scheme on this basis," van Ooyen said.

The Leave Support Scheme is paid as a lump sum to the employer.

The weekly benefit rates are $600 for full-time employees (20+ hours per week) and $359 for part-time employees (less than 20 hours per week).  

More details, including eligibility criteria, can be found here.

*Q4. Can an employer apply for the Leave Support scheme if the worker is using their sick leave?

If they meet the Leave Support Scheme (LSS) criteria, the employer can decide whether they want to apply for the subsidy to offset costs of paying the worker.

"The employer can apply for the LSS even if the employee is using their sick leave," MBIE said.

Q5. If a worker normally earns more than the amount paid under the Leave Support Scheme, should they expect pay to be topped up?

Employment law still applies, meaning employers are still responsible for paying an employee's ordinary wages or salary, MBIE said.  

Employers applying for the Leave Support Scheme acknowledge that the subsidy doesn't override or alter their existing obligations under employment law.

"They must use their best endeavours to pay at least 80 percent of each named employee's ordinary wages or salary, if the parties agree in writing to reduce the employee's ordinary wages or salary," an MBIE spokesperson said.

They must be a tax-registered business, and the employee must be recorded as a staff member in Inland Revenue records, van Ooyen said. 

For workers paid hourly, the Minimum Wage Act still applies.

Q6. What other pay options are available to workers while self-isolating?

MBIE suggests workers check their employment agreement, and discuss and agree on an approach with their employer.

"This could include considering special paid leave, annual holidays, long-service leave, other payments (including partial payments) by the employer for a certain period of time, or any combination of the above," an MBIE spokesperson said.

"Employers and employees should record in writing any agreement that they come to, particularly if it departs from the terms and conditions in their employment agreement,'' the spokesperson added.

The COVID-19 Short Term Absence Payment, a one-off payment of $359, is available for employers to cover workers unable to work from home, who are required to miss work while waiting for a COVID-19 test.

More information about leave and pay during COVID-19 can be found here.  

*Added 17/2/22.