How to create a COVID-Safe Plan for your workplace (and other lockdown considerations for employers).
Coronavirus has put a strain on many businesses. Employers and employees alike have had to adapt to an overwhelming and unexpected situation which has put working conditions, job security, mental wellness and revenue on the line. There are a number of financial, legal and human resource factors to take into account when navigating this turbulent time. And it's important for both employees and employers that proper protocols are followed.
Here are some key areas of concern, and the tools you can use to help address these concerns.
Victorian Stage 4 Business Restrictions: Worker Permits & COVID-Safe Plans
Under the Stage 4 restrictions, there are new requirements for businesses. Certain services and industries will be able to remain operational and will be required by law to have a COVID Safe Plan.
For information on the latest restrictions and to understand if your business can open under Stage 4 restrictions, visit the DHHS website.
What are my obligations and responsibilities as an employer?
Under the Stage 4 restrictions, workplaces that remain open must:
- have a COVID Safe Plan in place that is regularly updated (unless you are a small business with fewer than 5 employees).
- ensure that any workers that can work from home are able to do so.
- collect records of all workers, subcontractors, customers and clients attending the work premises for 15 minutes or longer (certain exemptions will apply).
- one worker per four square metres of enclosed workspace or in shared areas.
- unless an exemption applies, ensure that workers do not work across multiple sites, or for multiple employers.
- ensure that workers are in good health - workers cannot work if they are unwell and employers must not require workers with symptoms to work.
- if your worker is unwell, send them home and direct them to be tested. They must stay home until they have their result.
- report any positive cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) to DHHS, Worksafe, Health and Safety Representatives, and notify your workforce.
- regularly clean your facilities, shared spaces and provide additional cleaning supplies.
- undertake risk assessments for cleaning and the potential closure of your workplace in certain situations.
What is a COVID-Safe Plan?
Every employer must complete their COVID Safe plan by 11.59pm on 7 August 2020.
Your COVID Safe Plan helps protect your workers, customers and visitors and to prepare for a suspected or confirmed case of coronavirus (COVID-19) in your workplace.
Your COVID Safe Plan must set out:
- Your actions to help prevent the introduction of coronavirus (COVID-19) in your workplace
- The level of face-covering or personal protective equipment (PPE) required for your workforce
- How you will prepare for, and respond to, a suspected or confirmed case of coronavirus (COVID-19) in your workplace
- This plan must demonstrate how you will meet all of the requirements set out by the Victorian Government. Some higher-risk industries or workplaces have additional requirements of employers and employees.
You can find templates and further guidelines on how to create a Covid-Safe Plan here.
Who needs a Permitted Worker Permit?
From 11:59pm on Wednesday 5 August, employers that require their staff to physically attend a workplace must issue a worker permit to their employees.
Employers can issue a worker permit to their employee if:
- the organisation is on the list of permitted activities
- the employee is working in an approved category for on-site work, and
- the employee cannot work from home.
In rare circumstances an employee does not need a worker permit. This includes:
- if an employee is at risk at home, such as at risk of family violence
- law enforcement, emergency services workers or health workers who carry employer-issued photographic identification, which clearly identifies the employer.
An employee must not use a worker permit, even if they have been issued one, if:
- they test positive to coronavirus (COVID-19) and are required to self-isolate
- they are a close contact of someone who has tested positive.
Working from home: OH&S, Tax and Productivity.
What OH&S responsibilities do you have when your staff are working from home?
Safework Australia has the most comprehensive information available on this subject, and we recommend you check out their website for full details.
However, in summary, here are some things you need to address...
As an employer, you have a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of your workers and WHS Laws still apply, even if they are working from home.
In order to minimise risks for your employees working from home, you should actively consult with them on the subject, and:
- provide guidance on what is a safe home office environment, including workstation set up. You may require your employees to provide photos or videos of their home work space so you can ensure it meets OH&S guidelines.
- allow workers to (safely) borrow any necessary work station equipment from the office to take to the home.
- require workers to familiarise themselves and comply with good ergonomic practices.
- maintain regular communication with workers, don't leave your employees feeling isolated.
- provide access to information and support for mental health and wellbeing services.
- appoint a contact person in the business who workers can talk to about any concerns related to working from home.
You must also think about how your existing policies and procedures apply when working from home, including:
- notification of incidents, injuries, hazards and changes in circumstances
- consultation and review of work health and safety processes, and
- attendance, timesheets, leave and other entitlements and arrangements.
What tax benefits are available to employees working at home?
In response to COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns, the ATO has introduced a shortcut method to calculating expenses of working from home with minimal record keeping required.
The shortcut method initially applied from 1 March 2020 to 30 June 2020, however it has now been extended.
This means, you will be able to use the shortcut method to calculate your working at home expenses for the period from:
- 1 March 2020 to 30 June 2020 in the 2019–20 income year, and
- 1 July 2020 to 30 September 2020 in the 2020–21 income year.
We obviously recommend you (and your employees) speak to your relevant tax agent representatives to ensure everyone is compliant in their
tax return while claiming any working from home expenses.
More information is available on the ATO website.
How can you manage employee productivity remotely?
We have an excellent article on how to work from home productively, which you can read here.
However, we would like to throw in a couple of COVID-specific tips here too:
- Your employees are adjusting to a significant life change and may be finding it difficult to cope during lockdown, and it is important to consider that this may impact productivity and make allowances accordingly. Encourage your workers to speak to you if they are struggling, and create a safe and open dialogue surrounding KPIs and expectations.
- If possible, offer more flexible working hours to employees. They may be sharing their working space with family members and/or sharing the role of parent, home-school teacher and babysitter throughout the day. They find it easier to work later at night, or even on weekends so they can alternate roles with their partner throughout the week.
Use technology to help!
- Zoom and Teams can ensure your team is well-connected and able to communicate freely with eachother while working remotely in different places.
- Collaboratively organisation tools like Trello can help teams and departments create workflows and to-do lists.
- Moving to cloud-based software means everyone can securely access accurate data from anywhere.
- Formalise and digitise your policies and procedures so that employees can access them and follow them from home. Consider how these policies and procedures might need to be adjusted to suit remote working.
Redundancies, JobKeeper, and how to "do the right thing".
Fair Work is the first place to go whenever you have a questions or concern regarding employment conditions and regulations. They have a dedicated Coronavirus page with all information regarding working conditions during the pandemic which we encourage every employer to take a look at!
What if I need to make an employee redundant?
There are a number of things employers need to be aware of before ending an employee’s employment. Under the Fair Work Act, an employee is protected from being dismissed because of a temporary absence due to illness or injury. These protections continue to apply to employees whose employment is impacted by coronavirus.
The Fair Work Act also includes protections against being dismissed because of:
- a reason that is harsh, unjust or unreasonable, or in a way that is harsh, unjust or unreasonable
- another protected right.
If an employee loses their job because of the impacts of coronavirus, their entitlements will depend on how and why their employment ends. For example, if employment ends because the business closes down permanently, or because the role is no longer required, the employee may be entitled to redundancy pay.
How does JobKeeper impact employment regulations?
If an employer needs to dismiss an employee while a"JobKeeper enabling stand down" direction is in place, the usual rules about ending employment apply. This includes notice of termination, redundancy and unfair dismissal.
Please note that JobKeeper rules are changing in September, and some businesses and employees may no longer be eligible to receive payments from 28 September 2020. This may impact your ability to keep some staff members on your payroll.
How do I manage my relationship with good employees who are only being let go due to reduced cash flow in lockdown?
It is an extremely difficult time for everyone and letting a loyal team member go is a tough call to make. A lot of employers have described turmoil of making such a decision, and lamented over wanting to be able to "do the right thing" for their staff, but also needing to be realistic about the survival of the business.
Be transparent about why they are losing their job, and whether you are open to having them back again once things pick up again in future.
Give them as much notice as possible, encourage them to find another position elsewhere. If appropriate, provide resources for them to seek other employment, upskill, or apply for JobSeeker payments.