Work in the time of coronavirus: What could COVID-19 mean for Australian workers?

With cases of coronavirus rising in Australia, now could be a good time for employees to consider what happens if they get sick and are unable to work. Unfortunately, not even the Fair Work Ombudsman can provide “specific rules” for this developing situation yet. Here’s a brief overview of what we know so far.
Coronavirus in the workplace - your rights explained (1)
Coronavirus is spreading. Do you know your rights to work and take sick leave? Image source: Whyframe, Shutterstock.

The coronavirus – COVID-19 – has already had global health ramifications, spreading across dozens of nations, infecting hundreds of thousands of people and claiming thousands of lives.

Aside from the obvious health concerns, professional services firm PwC has anticipated the coronavirus could have a significant impact on the global economy, resulting in a reduction in the total workforce by about 1.53%.

They worked this out by assuming 50% of the world’s population contracts the disease, 61% of those people are in the workforce and they have to take about 2.5 weeks off to recover.

To put that into perspective with an example, Australia’s largest company the Commonwealth Bank has around 48,000 employees. If, hypothetically, three in ten of them caught the coronavirus (based on the assumed infection rates in PwC’s report), that would equate to over 14,000 CBA workers needing to take time off work due to the virus.

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Ok, so what are workplaces doing to prepare?

Some companies have already started taking measures to limit the spread of the virus in the workplace, including Apple, which urged all global office staff to work remotely this week and made plans to reduce the number of people in its retail stores.

Flight Centre reportedly asked full-time staff in an internal email to cut down their hours to a four-day work week to help the business, and said this would result in their salaries being reduced to match the hours worked.

The World Health Organisation has advised employers on how to get their workplace ready for COVID-19, with tips such as having hand sanitiser available to staff and encouraging anyone with even mild symptoms to stay at home.

This has raised concern that some employees could potentially suffer financial pressure if they are unable to attend work, particularly for casual workers who often don’t get paid sick leave.

What could coronavirus mean for you as an employee, according to the Ombudsman?

Even the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) – which many employers and employees turn to for guidance on their workplace rights – cannot provide all the answers for coronavirus and the workplace yet.

Canstar finance expert Effie Zahos said we were in “uncharted waters” now about the rules if people are sick or unable to work due to coronavirus concerns or quarantine.

“Let’s say you’re worried about going to the workplace because you’re concerned about your health and you want to stay home and work, but you’ve got a job that doesn’t allow you to stay home from work – where do you stand?,” Ms Zahos said.

She said questions like these were no doubt hot topics of discussion in the workplace right now, particularly between small businesses who may not have the cash flow to support workers without sick leave, and workers who have to take time off and continue paying bills but aren’t receiving an income.

As for now, there are some broad guidelines from the FWO about employees’ rights in Australia when it comes to coronavirus. Of course, everyone’s personal situation is different, so the following general information may not necessarily apply to you. You may want to consider seeking independent legal and/or medical advice tailored to your circumstances.

1. Workers may be able to take leave if they or their family members are sick with coronavirus

The FWO’s website states that generally speaking, full-time and part-time permanent workers who can’t come to work because they are sick with coronavirus should be able to take paid sick leave, or if they need to look after a sick family member or housemate they should be able to take paid carer’s leave. They should be able to take unpaid carer’s leave if they run out of paid sick or carer’s leave, the FWO says.

Casual workers, on the other hand, would normally only be entitled to two days of carer’s leave without pay, according to the FWO.

If you are sick, it’s possible your employer could ask for evidence of the illness or emergency, which you will be expected to provide if asked, according to the FWO.

2. Some workers could potentially be sent home without pay

According to the FWO, the Fair Work Act normally only allows employers to send staff home without pay if they can’t work due to equipment breakdown, industrial action or an obstruction of work that is out of the employer’s control.

The Ombudsman says on its website that the most common scenarios for being stood down without pay are typically severe weather events or natural disasters. But it adds that if an employer thinks a staff member is at risk of having coronavirus – either due to recent travel or close contact with someone who has the virus – they can ask that employee to stay home from work, or to seek medical clearance from a doctor before returning to work.

In this scenario, a full-time or part-time employee would “ordinarily” be paid, the FWO states, but there is no mention of what casual employees’ rights would be.

It could be worthwhile checking your employment contract, which may have more guidelines about under which circumstances your employer may send you home. If you would like further information, consider speaking with your employer directly.

3. Employees can possibly ask to work from home or to take time off

The FWO states that some in some cases, employers can ask that staff to work from home, if possible, or not work at all during the risk period if they are deemed at risk of infection from coronavirus. It also adds that employees may be able to request to work from home if they are worried about being exposed to the virus.

Organising this would generally require speaking with your employer and going through the normal leave application process, the FWO states.

Before doing so, it might be worthwhile chatting with your doctor or a workplace health and safety representative to determine how “at risk” you are of contracting COVID-19.

Want to learn more about the coronavirus crisis? Latest stories at Canstar’s COVID-19 in Australia hub page.

4. Workers may need to let their employer know if they’re stuck overseas or forced to enter quarantine

If anyone is unable to get to work because they can’t return from an overseas trip or are required to enter quarantine, they should normally let their employer know as soon as possible, the FWO says.

Employers and employees will need to come to their own arrangements when it comes to pay in this situation, according to the FWO, because the Act doesn’t have any “specific rules” for people who can’t attend work because they’re stuck overseas or are required to quarantine themselves because of the coronavirus. This may involve discussing the possibility of:

  • Taking sick leave
  • Taking annual leave or long service leave
  • Taking some form of unpaid leave

5. Some helpful links for information on health and safety at work

If you have any urgent enquiries about your workplace entitlements or obligations, speak with your employer or if necessary consider contacting the FWO online or by calling 13 13 94.

Could your super balance be impacted if you were unable to work?

According to the Australian Taxation Office, you are entitled to be paid the 9.5% super guarantee on top of your gross income, which employers must pay at least quarterly, if you are:

  • Paid $450 or more before tax in a month; and either
  • over 18 years old; or
  • under 18 years old and working over 30 hours per week

The ATO doesn’t, however, have any information available at this time about how employees’ super balances could be impacted if they are unable to work due to coronavirus.

This article was reviewed by our Sub-editor Tom Letts before it was published as part of our fact-checking process.

Follow Canstar on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates.

As with all our content, Canstar’s Coronavirus coverage will always be free for our readers.

Ellie McLachlanEllie is a Senior Finance Journalist within the Editorial team at Canstar, responsible for leading the news function for the business. She specialises in covering all things home loans and housing, breaking finance industry news and monitoring financial product movements. Ellie has a keen interest in analysing data and research, and is passionate about sharing people’s personal experiences with managing money. Ellie studied a Bachelor of Journalism and Arts (Peace and Conflict Studies) at UQ and has dipped her toe in digital, broadcast and print media, including at organisations such as The Urban List, The Courier Mail, 4ZZZ and APN News & Media. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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