The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak raises a number of questions for employers about how they can manage their workforce effectively and legally during this difficult time.

What should you do if you believe an employee is at risk of infection from coronavirus?

Under work health and safety legislation, employers are required to do as much as is reasonably practical to ensure the health and safety of their workers. Employers should consider the recommendations published by the Department of Health in regard to people that may have been infected by the virus.

Employers should request that at-risk employees be medically cleared before returning to work. They should also consider organising for the employee to work from home until any recommended self-isolation period has elapsed.

Employees that are showing symptoms of the virus and have not been medically cleared to return to work are likely to be considered unfit for work, and therefore can take paid sick leave. Paid carer’s leave will also be available for employees that need to look after a family member or member of their household that is sick with the coronavirus.

However, for employees that are not showing symptoms of the virus, they will likely be considered fit to attend work. In this scenario, where an employer directs a permanent employee not to work, the employee will generally be entitled to be paid over the period of imposed absence. They should not be directed to use annual, personal or sick leave, but rather given paid special leave.

Care should be taken to note whether particular provisions of the employee’s award, enterprise agreement or contract of employment affects the employer’s obligations.

When can an employer stand down employees?

Employers may wish to ‘stand down’ employees in order to avoid having to pay workers that are self-isolating. Standing down employees is where an employee is sent home without pay due to there being no work for them to perform.

This is unlikely to be a viable option. The Fair Work Act provides that an employee may only be stood down where they can’t do useful work because of equipment break down, industrial action or a stoppage in work activities due to circumstances outside the employer’s control (typically due to natural disasters or severe weather).

Note that the relevant enterprise agreement, award or contract of employment may specify different requirements before an employee can be stood down.

Can an employer stand down employees if there is a reduction in work due to the Coronavirus?

Many businesses are experiencing a reduction in work due to the economic downturn accompanying the spread of the coronavirus.

Generally, a period of slow work will not be a valid reason to stand down employees.

Employers should instead consider reducing working hours each day, giving the option to take paid leave, and allowing employees to work from home.

In case of any confusion about how you should deal with your workforce in the face of the exceptional circumstances created by the global coronavirus outbreak, it is important to speak to a lawyer. Contact JFMLAW today on 02 9331 0266.