In wake of the World Health Organisation declaring COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus) a pandemic, many workplaces have responded to help stop the spread of the virus by changing their working arrangements, with many industries making the move to work from home.
However, not all workplaces have been able to work online. Service industries such as retail and hospitality have been among the hardest hit after government restrictions closed restaurants, bars and retail outlets. Employers and employees alike are feeling the serious socio-economic effects of COVID-19 as millions of jobs are either becoming redundant or at risk of becoming redundant, amid the increasing severity of temporary government restrictions.
This week, the Federal government introduced a $130b economic stimulus package to assist small businesses to retain employees. Businesses will receive a fortnightly wage subsidy up to $1,500 per employee in an effort to prevent millions of workers from losing their jobs.
So, what are your employee rights and obligations in the light of this rapidly changing crisis? It largely depends on your individual circumstances.
Sources of law
Australia’s workplace laws emanate from various sources, but the main protections are contained in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (“FWA”), the relevant awards, the Workplace Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth), Workplace Health and Safety Regulations 2011 and Model Codes of Practice. WHS legislation is crucial as it requires employers to identify risks in the workplace, and do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate them, or where this is not reasonably practicable, to minimise those risks.
Employees should also note the published advice by the Department of Health.
Self-quarantine and self-isolation
All states and territories have engaged similar emergency powers under respective public health legislation. Your requirement to self-isolate for 14 days applies in the following situations:
- If you have tested positive for coronavirus
- If you have come in close contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus
- You arrived in Australia after midnight on 15 March 2020.
If you find yourself in any of the above situations, you should contact the Department of Health, and your employer immediately.
All travellers returning to Australia after 15 March 2020 must self-isolate for 14 days. If you refuse to comply, severe penalties apply in each State or Territory.
If you are required to self-isolate, then you must not attend work. Your options may include:
- Working from home – You should discuss this with your employer and review any agreements, employment contracts, enterprise agreement or workplace policies
- Taking sick leave, if you are unwell
- Taking annual leave or other leave such as long service leave
- Taking leave without pay
If you cannot work because you are subject to self-quarantine, you are not entitled to be paid unless you use your leave entitlements. Employees subject to a government enforcement order are not ordinarily entitled to be paid. There is a distinction to be made with an employer’s direction.
You may wish to discuss with your employer if you can undertake alternate work.
What if I want to stay home as a precautionary measure?
You should discuss your options and any alternative working arrangements with your employer.
Do I have any obligations as an employee?
Under WHS laws, your employer must ensure the health and safety of all employees. As an employee, you also have obligations. Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth) you have four obligations while you are at work:
- To take reasonable care for your own health and safety
- Take reasonable care that your acts or omissions (failure to do something) do not adversely affect the health and safety of other persons
- Comply, so far as you are reasonably able, with any reasonable instruction that is given by your employer under the Act
- Co‑operate with any reasonable policy or procedure of your employer relating to health or safety at the workplace that has been notified to you.
Casual employees do not have paid leave entitlements under the National Employment Standards, as they receive a higher rate of pay in place of leave entitlements. However, under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), casual employees are entitled to 2 days of unpaid carer’s leave per occasion.
If you have lost your job, you may be eligible for the Jobseeker Allowance through Centrelink.
If you have been dismissed, and believe that it has been done in a ‘harsh, unjust or unreasonable manner’ then you can apply to the Fair Work Commission.
Stimulus package for casual workers and sole traders
The government’s second coronavirus stimulus package is designed to provide relief for retirees and to assist workers who cannot find work as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.
If you have been affected, you may be able to access a “coronavirus supplement” of $550 a fortnight for the next six months.
The package also includes doubling the Jobseeker Allowance through the introduction of the coronavirus supplement – providing an extra $550 fortnightly. This will be available to workers who meet the income test.
From mid-April 2020, you can apply for early release of your super if you satisfy one or more of the following:
- You are unemployed
- You are eligible to receive a job seeker payment, youth allowance for jobseekers, parenting payment (including the single and partnered payments), special benefit or farm household allowance
- On or after 1 January 2020:
- You were made redundant
- Your income or hours have been reduced by 20 percent or more.
This will be capped at $10,000 this financial year, and $10,000 in the next financial year. The withdrawal of your super will be tax-free.
Income Protection Insurance
Many employees have an automatic Income Protection Insurance Policy. You may be able to access your Income Protection Insurance through your super fund if your balance is above $6,000. Contact your super fund to discuss your options and eligibility.
For further information on employee entitlements during the COVID-19 crisis:
If you suspect that you, or someone you know, has COVID-19, call:
To register for the coronavirus supplement, login to: