New Zealand government has announced a $12.1 billion incentive package to assist employers and the broader economy in coping with the influence of the virus. COVID-19 carries with it a range of employment law problems that employers should turn their mind to promptly.
Employers Obligations under COVID-19
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, employers have a legal obligation to take all possible steps to preserve the employees from risks and hazards in the workplace. Employers don’t want any employees with COVID-19 or COVID-19 symptoms to visit the workplace, as they represent an unacceptable contamination risk for partners and others in the workplace. Other reasonably possible steps employers should consider taking to protect their employees include washing hands regularly, using hand sanitiser, not sharing cutlery, ensuring the workplace is stocked with hand sanitiser, soaps, wipes to clean down workstations and surfaces and promoting employees to arrange online meetings with clients if fit properly, instead of face to face meetings and physically visitation.
To ease the financial burden, employers might think encouraging or even forcing workers to take annual holidays in the coming weeks. An employer is authorised to direct an employee to take annual holidays as long as they give at least 14 days’ notice. However, the employer must first endeavour to reach an agreement with the employee about when their annual holidays will be practised. An employer that already requires staff to take annual holidays during a customary Christmas/New Year closedown will strive to justify requiring employees to take a further period of annual leave during the year.
Force Majeure Clause
Some employment agreements comprise a force majeure clause. These clauses can relieve the parties of their responsibilities or allow obligations to be suspended if an uncontrollable event occurs. A public health crisis like COVID-19 may be a triggering situation depending on the phrasing of the clause. Whether a business can use COVID-19 to invoke a force majeure clause will rely on the nature of the business and whether the business is inadequate to take reasonable steps to avoid or lessen the effect of the event.
Government Support Package
The Government’s assistance package has been set up to help employers and workers during this difficult time. Some of the measures announced include pay subsidies which permit businesses to receive a subsidy of $585.80 per week for a full-time employee and $350 per week for a part-time worker, paid as a lump sum and for a period of 3 months. The maximum a business can claim in accumulative wage support is $150,000. As well as leave and self-isolation support for qualifying employees who are cannot work due to self-isolation or because they have COVID-19 can receive weekly payments of $585.80 if they are a permanent worker or $350 per week if they are a part-time employee.
There is also support accessible for self-employed workers, entrepreneurs and contractors, as well as tax changes, to support businesses.
Contact us know if you require legal advice about the impact of COVID-19 on your business.