Unless you’ve been under a rock or on a long holiday in the remote Fiordland wilds, you’re probably well aware of COVID-19 - a new strain of coronavirus that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared a global public health emergency.
The virus has claimed more than 8,000 lives worldwide and more than 160 countries have cases (as of 19 March).
So far, New Zealand has had 28 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the Ministry of Health rates the likelihood of a widespread community outbreak as low.
The economic impact is more marked, with global trade slowing and local export, tourism, agriculture, and education businesses all being disrupted by the coronavirus and ensuing travel restrictions.
Even if your business hasn’t been affected commercially, all employers need to take COVID-19 seriously. Everyone needs to work together to contain the virus and limit its impact.
This doesn’t mean overreacting. It’s about getting accurate information, understanding the risks, and planning accordingly.
Of course, keeping your workplace and workers healthy and safe while making plans for the continuity of your business should be a fundamental part of your strategy and operations.
Being prepared will not only be useful during the current coronavirus outbreak, it will stand you in good stead to respond to any natural disaster or public health emergency.
So what could this look like in practice?
Meeting Health & Safety obligations
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, businesses must take all practicable steps to mitigate risks and protect their people from hazards in the workplace.
Infectious diseases are considered workplace hazards, so minimising their spread is essential for keeping all your team members safe and well.
COVID-19 is a respiratory pathogen like the flu and is transmitted from person to person by coughing, sneezing, and close personal contact. Basic hygiene measures remain the most important way to stop these infections spreading and they should be a part of every company’s health and safety policy.
This means everyone should:
- Regularly wash hands with soap and water, or use hand sanitiser (if soap and water is inconvenient).
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue or elbow, then wash hands.
- Clean surfaces regularly.
- If you develop cold or flu symptoms, or suspect you have been exposed to the virus, stay away from work, call Healthline, and get medical attention.
Remember to plan for the continued supply of products like soap and disinfectant. You should also have effective practices for checking people’s health, their potential exposure to the virus, and the safety of workplace conditions. There may be a component of ongoing worker education and training, so everyone knows how to meet health and safety requirements.
Depending on the make-up of your business, you may need to keep an eye out for harassment and victimisation of employees who are suspected of having the virus, or are part of an ethnic group whose community has had (or thought to have had) the virus.
Business continuity planning
Being prepared and resilient should be a part of every company’s wider planning. As we’ve seen numerous times in this country, disasters and major disruptions can happen at any time.
Your primary responsibility should be the health, safety, and security of your people, above the interests of the business itself.
Make a workplace emergency plan and make sure all employees know what’s in it, how to take care of themselves in the event of an emergency, and who to contact.
Business slow down
COVID-19 is disrupting the economy and businesses that rely on imported goods and materials, visitors, or who are export-based are most affected. Employers may find themselves squeezed for income and/or won’t have as much work for their employees.
This may mean you have to look at cutting costs. Work with your people to explore short-term options. Everyone may agree to work reduced hours, so long as this offers everyone enough income and saves the company enough money to stay afloat.
There may also be other cost-efficiency measures you can consider. If your business is international, you may need to restrict team members’ overseas work travel, both for their own safety and for the financial good of the company (get the latest advice from SafeTravel).
If work is limited, employees may be able to take leave and in some circumstances employers may compel staff to take leave by providing 14 days’ notice (note: this is only for leave accrued over the annual entitlement).
Your company and employees may be eligible for government wage or leave subsidies and tax relief.
If COVID-19 had a significant commercial impact on your business, it could be the basis for restructuring and redundancies. As with all restructures, the commercial basis would need to be clearly justified and the process would have to be fair and reasonable.
Redundancies should be your last resort.
Consider making a call for voluntary redundancies. There may be people in the team who were considering leaving anyway, eg about to resign to move town or go overseas.
In a worst-case scenario, you may decide to close the business temporarily. In this case, work with your people on what type of leave they can take. If you don’t reach an agreement, you’ll have to pay the employees during that period (unless it’s a civil emergency and the government orders businesses to shut).
If someone gets sick
The nature of any viral outbreak changes rapidly and it is likely more people in NZ will be exposed to COVID-19.
The incubation period is as long as 11 days, so people might not immediately know they have it and some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms.
There are self-isolation guidelines for people returning to NZ from some overseas countries, and any team members should follow these, even if they show no symptoms.
The Ministry of Health recommends that anyone who has been in close contact with an infected person (within a metre for more than 15 minutes) should also self-isolate.
These employees may be able to continue working from home or a self-contained place. Formulate a plan with them early so they can maintain their income and keep their colleagues and your workplace safe. Keep in contact with them to see how they are.
Obviously, if a team member does get COVID-19 (or their spouse, partner or dependent gets it), they should not come to work and are entitled to sick leave.
If they run out of sick leave, they can ask for sick leave in advance, use their annual holidays, or ask for advanced annual leave or leave without pay. The business could also agree to provide additional sick leave or special paid leave.
Once all leave entitlements and any negotiated additional leave or anticipated leave allowances run out, you’ll need to investigate further options with your employees.
The good news is that most people who get COVID-19 experience mild illness and recover without needing special treatment.
As always, acting in good faith and keeping in regular communication with employees is super important.
Hysteria can run rampant, especially in the absence of facts, so remind people of the realities and best ways to prevent the virus spreading.
Consider making and following a communication plan. Things will keep evolving over time, so keep up-to-date with the latest developments and keep communication channels with staff open. Your people should know the latest (including any impacts on the business) and feel comfortable contributing and coming forward if they are at risk or are aware of others who are.
Remember, if you are honest and treat your people well during difficult times, they are more likely to stand by you when you need them.
Please contact MyHR if you need more advice about responding to COVID-19.
- Healthline coronavirus number – 0800 358 5453
- NZ Govt information on COVID-19
- Ministry of Health (MoH) coronavirus updates
- MoH workplace pandemic influenza guidance
- Worksafe coronavirus information
- Business.govt.nz information about COVID-19 for businesses
- Employment.govt.nz - Workplace response to the coronavirus
- Employment.govt.nz - coronavirus questions and answers (PDF)
- World Health Organisation COVID-19 information