COVID-19: Calls for Govt to finance extra sick leave to take pressure off struggling employers

Calls for increased sick leave should be answered - and financed - by the Government, argues a leading employment practitioner, not by businesses.

Employment Law expert Max Whitehead has rushed to the defence of small businesses struggling to provide additional sick leave throughout the ongoing pandemic. 

Under alert level 1 of the Government's COVID-19 response framework, New Zealanders are urged to stay at home when sick and seek a test if presenting cold or flu symptoms consistent with the virus - but not all employers are in the financial position to grant their staff paid leave.

The Council of Trade Unions is now demanding the Government to take urgent action and prevent employers from forcing symptomatic staff to work. The national trade union centre raised the alarm after reports surfaced of businesses failing to grant time off for testing. 

Yet many companies are still suffering from the fallout of New Zealand's two restrictive lockdowns, enforced in March and August to curb community outbreaks of COVID-19. With widespread closures and the requirement for Kiwis to remain at home unless for essential reasons, local businesses bore the brunt.

"We're going through a pandemic here, and we've got worries in our society that people need to be taken away from risks of actually catching it. I understand that, but what's unreasonable is that they're so generous with other people's money," Whitehead told Newshub on Tuesday.

"This isn't Government money - when you're talking small employers, this is mums and dads… what they've forgotten is they've just gone through absolute hell with the two lockdowns and they're struggling."

He says critics are too often jumping to conclusions and boycotting already struggling businesses, without knowing the facts. 

"We heard of that small business in town, recently accused of trying to force that worker into coming into work. Well, the worker's saying, 'no one forced me to, I went to work'. That business has suffered immensely from that allegation."

Whitehead, who has more than 30 years experience in the field of employment relations, says the Government should be financing additional sick leave during surges of COVID-19. He argues that if leave for mild symptoms is not subsidised, the Government will kill the "golden goose" of small businesses. 

"They really, really need to be careful of not slaughtering the golden goose. If they want to be generous, the Government should say, well we'll take it out of consolidated revenue, rather than small employers having to part with this extra revenue and money," Whitehead suggested.

"If people want more time off on pay, fine. Let it be at that cost. If that person has more time off work, that employer has lost productivity for the day. They're going to have to find someone else to fill in the spot or just lose out in their business."

Whitehead encourages employers to give unwell workers time off - if they believe they are being genuine - to ensure the safety of the rest of their staff. However, if they have reasonable doubt that the worker may be abusing the system, they are within their rights to ask for a medical certificate.

"It is hard on employers… being generous on sick leave for an extra five days a year is a lot of money to come out of a small business' pocket," Whitehead said.

"It's probably good intentions but again, the consequences - someone's got to pay. The Government should pay for the extra sick leave."

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern doubled-down on her election promise to increase annual sick leave, saying the legislation would be introduced before Christmas.

In June, it was revealed that the Council of Trade Unions intended to pile pressure on the Government to extend the legal minimum paid sick leave from five to 10 days. 

It has also called on the Government to extend the COVID-19 leave support scheme for the next year - making it easier to access - and covering Kiwis with coronavirus symptoms, including those waiting to be referred to testing.