HR Guide to Coronavirus

COVID-19: HR Challenges You Need To Consider

Updated April 29th 2020

Krystina Wildman

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to spread across the globe, employers are needing to urgently make changes to how the business operates and the impacts on the employer and employees as they adapt to the changing workplace. It can be a daunting task but here we outline the best approach to take to ensure the decisions the employer makes and implements are right for the business to succeed.

Our main advice is to run a risk assessment of all the possible effects on the business and equip the employer with up-to-date knowledge of their responsibilities, and, in particular, risks of managing the impact on the employees.

Employers should ensure they are prepared for the following considerations;

Health and Safety Responsibilities

Under Work Health and Safety laws, the employer has a duty of care for the health and safety of their employees in the workplace. As an employer, it is a must to identify risks to work health and safety from exposure to the COVID-19 virus and wherever possible, put in place appropriate controls. Staff members also have a duty of care for their own health and safety, and to not adversely affect the health and safety of others. Employees will be required to follow any reasonable policies the business has put in place in response to COVID-19.

The government has provided specific directions and each business needs to consider their environment and implement appropriate guidelines that suit to minimise risk in the workplace.

Any measures that are to be taken should be communicated to employees prior and, at a minimum should include the following;

  • Avoiding close contact between people – ensure social distancing is being followed in the workplace by keeping everyone at least 1.5 metres apart.
  • Encouraging workers to frequently wash their hands for at least 20 seconds and to practice good hygiene in the workplace by providing appropriate facilities, products and training around them.
  • Increase cleaning in the workplace
  • Limit access to the workplace
  • Be aware of how to recognise COVID-19 symptoms and ensure workers to not come to work if they are unwell

In addition, further control measures can be put in place to suit the workplace such as;

  • Not allowing any person that has returned from overseas to work or visit the workplace
  • Minimising the entry of any other persons such as clients or contractors to visit the workplace
  • Cancelling face to face meetings that normally take place in the workplace and replacing them with a video conference or teleconference.
  • Setting up staff to work from home (further details below).

With the fast pace in which things are evolving during this time, a business must be flexible and it is important to reassess any measures that have been put in place to assess their effectiveness and to make changes where necessary.

Working from Home

Employers may decide that the best option for the safety of the employees, and to try and keep some normality in the business, is to deploy staff to work from home.  It is important to remember that employers still have an obligation towards their employees who are working from home. 

A ‘Working from Home Policy’ should be in place that includes a checklist to ensure the employees work environment is safe and meets health and safety standards. The employee should be aware of which equipment and or resources will be provided by the employer or if the employee will be using their personal resources.

If the employer would like a sample of a checklist or assistance creating one, please contact your CIB Accountant for help.

Employers should also be keeping in constant contact with employees during this period to ensure the mental wellbeing of their employees. Putting digital tools in place such as video conferencing for meetings and having daily check-ins with teams is a great way to keep the staff connected to the business and helps identify any impacts on the staff’s wellbeing.

Illness in the Workplace

Employees should be directed to not attend the workplace in the event of illness until such time that they are safe to return to work. If an employee’s direct family member or contact is suspected to have COVID-19, they should be directed to not attend the workplace until clearance has been granted.

At present there is no “special leave” introduced by any level of government and employees would continue to use their leave entitlements as follows;

  • Employees that are full time and part-time will be required to use their paid personal leave.
  • Casuals are able to use two days of unpaid personal leave.
  • In the case that an employee is required to care for a family member who is unwell, then personal leave should be used also.

Employers have the right to request clearance (i.e. a medical certificate) from a Doctor before the employee is to return to work or for the period that the employee is absent from employment.

Travelling to work

In the case that an employee is unable to work from home (e.g. Administration staff) or are required to travel into the office, the employee should reduce risk where possible.  This could include reducing the need for the employee to travel via public transport (providing parking on-site), and staggering start and finish times so that travel is avoided during peak hours. It is suggested that the employer gives the employees a letter that they can carry with them when travelling to and from work in the event that they need to show proof to authorities.  If you would like a sample of a document that is suitable, please contact your CIB Accountant.

Events and Client Meetings

Employers should ensure all non-essential employee gatherings are cancelled and potential attendees to the business premises should be told NOT to visit if they have any symptoms of cold, flu or the virus.

That doesn’t mean that meeting or training can’t happen. There are many digital tools available for face-to-face meetings. Video conferencing can be used for training sessions, client meetings and regular check-ins with the employer staff working remotely. 

Leave Arrangements

As more employees are affected by the COVID-19 government requirements that are changing daily, employers should be made aware of their employees’ financial needs and implement an operation plan where the employer can continue to pay wages.

Where employees are required to self-isolate as a result of government requirement and have annual or long service leave accrued, employers should consider allowing those employees to use those leave entitlements rather than treat that time period as unpaid leave. This should be recorded in writing, even if only by email.

While personal leave is not applicable to an employee who is not sick or caring for a sick family member, under the strict terms of the Fair Work Act, in the context of a public health emergency, and quarantine resulting from that, we have heard of situations where an employer has, through negotiation with the employee, allowed the employee to use their personal leave, whilst they were required to self-isolate and weren’t actually sick.  However, under the strict interpretation of the Fair Work Act, this is not permissible and we would hope that, in context of the public health emergency, employers that allow this will not be penalised.

This approach will assist employers in reducing the leave liability they have on their books, and will in any event, in the case of annual or long service leave, be payments that will need to be paid by the employer at the end of employment.

Where the award allows, businesses may wish to enter individual flexibility agreements with their employees, to enable flexible work options. These generally will be required to be made under mutual agreement, unless the award and employment contract state otherwise.  Please refer to your applicable award and note Fair Work Australia has made amendments to various Awards during the pandemic.

Any changes made should be put in writing, stating the changes of the employment agreement affected (hours, location, duties, salary, etc.), and be signed by the employee.

Assistance to Businesses- Job Keeper

The Federal Government recently announced the Job Keeper Payment scheme, which is designed to assist employers (and self-employed individuals) affected by the Coronavirus pandemic to continue to pay their workers.  This is separate to the Job Seeker Payment,which is a payment made directly to the employee who is unemployed.

Under the JobKeeper Payment scheme – an eligible employee will receive (through their

employer) minimum fortnightly salary income of $1,500. Details on the JobKeeper Payment can be found here.

Assistance to Employees – Job Seeker Payment

The Federal Government in an earlier stimulus package announced the Job Seeker Payment scheme whereby employees (including self-employed) who lost their jobs were able to obtain immediate support.

The Job Seeker Payment scheme – an eligible employee (assuming they are single with no children) would be expected to receive a fortnightly payment of up to$565.70 plus the $550 Coronavirus supplement (resulting in a total fortnightly payment of up to around $1,115). However, Job Seeker recipients may also be eligible for other Government entitlements. For details on the Job Seeker Payment, please click here.

Stand Down Provisions

The shut downs of non-essential services across parts of Australia may trigger conditions in the Fair Work Act that will allow employers to stand employees down without pay.

In a Government imposed closure of a workplace, employers may be in a position to stand staff down without pay if those employees are unable to be usefully deployed in other parts of the business. Where there is a critical reduction in business, be it an essential or non-essential service, the ability to stand down employees becomes a difficult question. Advice for businesses should this occur has been detailed here.


As businesses face hardships during the pandemic, they may look at the need for redundancies in their workplaces.  The need for redundancies should be minimised where possible as these positions will need to be filled once effects of the pandemic begin to improve.  The need for redundancies may be reduced by virtue of the JobKeeper Payments.

Employees who are covered by a Modern Award, are entitled to a consultation period before the redundancy is affected. As a matter of best practice, employers should follow a consultation period prior to any redundancy, regardless of if their employees are Award covered or not. The purpose of a consultation period is for the employer to inform the affected employees about the proposed redundancy, and to give the employee an opportunity to provide any information or solutions that may reduce the impact of the redundancy on them. Potential solutions could include:

  • reduced hours or days
  • utilising annual leave or long service leave
  • shut down periods
  • alternative duties
  • considering financial assistance packages the employer might be entitled to from the government

Before making redundancies, the employer should check whether the business is entitled to the Job Keeper Payment. Any redundancies should be implemented carefully as there is a risk of unfair dismissal/adverse action claims if implemented incorrectly. This continues to be a very difficult time for businesses and should the employer have any concerns or questions, please contact your Business Adviser, the Partners, or any of our Teams via these contact options