Coronavirus and the Workplace: Your Rights
Last Updated: March 20th, 12:00pm (ACDT)
COVID-19, or coronavirus, has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. There have now been a significant number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia, including in South Australia.
As the virus continues to spread and its impact on community health and wellbeing is recognised, many employers will start to issue directions or take actions in relation to their businesses which will affect their employees. Employers are allowed to take reasonable precautions, but these precautions cannot be inconsistent with or undermine employees’ workplace rights.
Protections for workers
Workers cannot be discriminated against or dismissed because they have an illness. Their employment cannot be terminated because they contract coronavirus and require time away from work.
If a worker is diagnosed with coronavirus, they should take personal leave as they would for any other illness. They should get a doctor’s certificate and should provide it to their employer as soon as possible. Once they are deemed fit to return to work by their doctor, their employer should be allow them to return to work.
Some workers are entitled to lodge a claim for and receive workers compensation if they contract certain infectious diseases while at work. Workers should check their Award or Agreement to see if this option is available to them.
There is ongoing debate about whether a worker who is quarantined on advice from a medical professional but who has not been diagnosed with coronavirus can take personal leave. Workers should discuss this further with their employer, but many employers are permitting employees to access sick leave or annual leave in such circumstances.
Can my employer make me self-quarantine?
Even workers who are not unwell should follow any reasonable direction by their employer to see their doctor, to stay home from work, or to work from home, insofar as possible.
Employers can give reasonable directions to employees to take accumulated annual leave or long service leave, but again this may depend upon the particular circumstances.
In exceptional circumstances, and if the coronavirus poses a significant enough threat, an employer may be forced to close down a workplace or section of a workplace. If an employer has no real choice but to close down, it would not have to pay its employees for the period it is not operating, as this is an event outside of the employer’s control.
Casual workers, like all workers, should let their employers know if they have been diagnosed with or think they might have coronavirus. They may be required by their employer to provide a medical certificate in relation to any shifts they are rostered on for.
Casual workers are not entitled to paid sick leave, though some employers, such as Woolworths and Telstra, have committed to paying their casual staff during any periods they are away from work because of coronavirus. The Australian Government has also announced that casual workers will be entitled to receive Newstart during any period in which they are unable to work due to coronavirus (subject to assets testing), and that the waiting time for receiving payments will be waived.
Casual workers are protected from termination or demotion on the basis of absence due to illnesses such as coronavirus.
Workers with quarantined children
If a worker has a child or children who are quarantined or who are otherwise not allowed to attend school due to concerns about coronavirus, they may need to stay home from work to look after them.
This situation is really the same as any situation in which a worker has a sick child. A worker’s rights during this period will depend on the nature of their employment.
Permanent workers can apply for personal leave to look after a quarantined child. Some workers, including some casual workers, are entitled to unpaid carers leave and paid compassionate leave. Workers should have a look at their employment contract and their applicable Award and Agreement to determine their entitlements.
Some workers may be able to arrange flexible working arrangements for the period in which their child is unable to go to school. Employers must generally facilitate requests for flexible working arrangements unless there are reasonable grounds not to. Flexible working arrangements might include working from home, or altering work days or hours to facilitate care arrangements.