Preparing for Coronavirus in the workplace – key questions for employers

Posted by on Mar 3, 2020

Organisations across Australia are currently preparing for, and dealing with, the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) (Coronavirus). According to experts, it is a question of when, not if, a pandemic will be declared and the Australian Government has already triggered its emergency response plan. A pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation, is the worldwide spread of a new disease. To put this in perspective, the last pandemic was the H1N1 influenza, known as Swine Flu in 2009.

In Australia, as at 3 March 2020, there are a number of persons identified as most at risk of contracting Coronavirus, being those persons who have:

  • recently been in mainland China or Iran
  • been in close contact with someone who has a confirmed case of Coronavirus. [1]

In addition, precautions should also be taken by persons returning from Italy or South Korea who work as a healthcare worker or residential aged care worker.

At this stage, the extent that the virus will spread within Australia is unknown; at present the virus is being effectively contained and a widespread outbreak is by no means a foregone conclusion. It is, however, important that organisations take proactive steps to consider their response, should this situation change.

This blog lists some key issues for employers to consider when reviewing policies, communications and contingency plans, in responding to Coronavirus.

Organisational Responsibilities

  1. Does your organisation have clear lines of authority for who is responsible within the organisation for its response to, and management of, Coronavirus?
  2. Has a person or group been identified to handle the questions and responses relating to Coronavirus within your organisation?
  3. Is this person/group responsible for remaining updated on all developments concerning the outbreak?

Communications

  1. How much information should be disseminated to make staff aware of the issues, and how often?
  2. How should information be disseminated: regular briefings, email, information hotline, details of a contact person?
  3. Do your staff know what the Coronavirus symptoms are?
  4. Do staff know the difference between Coronavirus and the common cold/flu?
  5. Do staff know about the steps to avoid the spread of Coronavirus and ensure effective personal hygiene at home and in the workplace?
  6. Is your organisation making it easy for staff to take basic precautionary measures?
  7. Are staff being communicated with to reassure them that your organisation is preparing for contingencies?
  8. Who is responsible for communicating with customers and suppliers?
  9. Do your key decision makers for the organisation’s response have a list of key contacts?
  10. Are the different parts of your organisation presenting the same message? 

Response strategies

  1. Does your organisation have a policy in relation to how to manage:
    • infected staff;
    • staff living with or caring for infected people;
    • staff who have come into contact with infected people; and
    • staff whose children or family members have come into contact with infected people?
  2. How are any staff concerns regarding the outbreak being managed within your organisation?
  3. Does your organisation have processes in places for when staff return to work?
  4. What is the organisation’s legal position in terms of excluding a staff member from work where it is suspected they have Coronavirus or are at risk?
  5. What is the organisation’s legal position if it decides to take precautionary measures in excess of official guidelines?
  6. Who is responsible for payment of testing and/or treatment?
  7. What if, as a result of the impact of Coronavirus, there is no work for the staff member to do, are they still entitled to pay?

Health issues

  1. Are staff being requested to self-monitor and disclose their symptoms?  How is this being communicated and handled?
  2. How are staff being sent home if they are discovered to be infectious at work? E.g. which mode of transport and what hygiene steps are activated at that person’s workstation? Will their team members be quarantined?
  3. What are safe quarantine periods for staff who are infected or caring for someone infected?
  4. Who is tracking the quarantine periods for staff and what is the process for determining whether it is safe/appropriate for the employee to return to work?
  5. Where can staff receive up-to-date information, treatment and care?

Work issues

  1. Who is stepping in for a staff member who is not at work due to Coronavirus?  Is that person being supported in their role with their additional duties?  Are they being consulted, receiving more training, receiving closer supervision and support and revised KPIs?
  2. How are communications with infected colleagues at home being handled?
  3. Have steps been taken to minimise work related travel, particularly to minimise the time spent on aeroplanes and to minimise travel to and from affected areas?
  4. Have triggers been identified for scaling back or suspending specific business operations?
  5. Have you reviewed work practices to ensure that work can be readily handed over in the event someone becomes unwell?
  6. Have you considered what flexible work practices may be enacted to accommodate leave and/or travel restrictions?

Can staff effectively work from home?

  1. Have worst case scenarios been envisaged and responses planned by your organisation (e.g. if 30 – 40% or more of your workforce were quarantined, or if public transport was suspended)?
  2. Have you identified which employees are able to work safely and effectively at home?
  3. Are the appropriate confidentiality and privacy precautions for your staff to work remotely in place?
  4. What would your response be if staff request to work from home as a precaution?
  5. Have you confirmed whether your IT infrastructure can accommodate a significant increase in the number of employees working remotely?

Leave issues

  1. What leave is a person taking when they are away from work due to Coronavirus or self-isolation if they are an identified “at risk” person?  Sick leave, carer’s leave, other leave?  Does it depend on whether they are sick, or caring for someone, and at whose initiative have they sought to leave the workplace (e.g. could they take annual leave or leave without pay)?
  2. How will your organisation respond if schools/childcare centres are shut down, resulting in increased absenteeism due to carer responsibilities?
  3. Does your organisation understand what entitlements each employee has in accordance with his/her employment contract and legislation?
  4. If a staff member is working at home, or only partially working from home, are they paid wages or sick leave?
  5. At what stage does the employer begin encouraging healthy staff to take annual leave as a risk minimisation, or even economic, response?

Useful Websites

Australian Government Department of Health website

Victorian Government health information website

WorkSafe Victoria – A guide for employers – preparing for a pandemic

Further Assistance

The list of questions may appear overwhelming and the extent to which all of these questions are all relevant to your organisation will vary. There is no “one size fits all” strategy; it is important that your organisation’s response is practical, proportionate and tailored to your needs and circumstances, in order to best prepare your staff and organisation for the potential impact of Coronavirus.

If you require further support in relation to any of the issues or questions raised by this blog post, please contact the team at Justitia (03) 8621 4500 or info@justitia.com.au.


[1] Australian Government Department of Health, Coronavirus
(COVID-19) health alert
(Web page, 3 March 2020) <
https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert>.