An outbreak of novel coronavirus (also called COVID-19) originated in China and has been widely reported. The Ministry of Health has indicated that there is a high probability of coronavirus reaching New Zealand and is issuing up-to-date guidance
Minimising the spread of coronavirus is important to keep employees safe and well at work. This should be done before thinking about the interests of the business or organisation. The Ministry of Health has information available on workplace infectious disease prevention. In the case of an emergency, employers and employees should remember to keep in regular contact and deal with each other in good faith.
Employees and employers should check their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. For further information about workplace safety obligations in relation to coronavirus, see WorkSafe’s website:
Employment issues associated with responding to the coronavirus outbreak are not always clear-cut and should be considered on a case-by-case basis, but there are some basic rules.
Employers could start by identifying any risks and make an emergency plan. An employer should talk to their employees about what they and their families would need to get through an emergency – a personal workplace emergency plan could help. Employees should know who to contact at work in an emergency and how they should take care of themselves. An employer should also make sure that they have a communication plan to keep employees informed.
Employers and employees should follow the Ministry of Health’s up-to-date advice on coronavirus. People who have recently travelled to China, or had contact with someone who has had coronavirus, are at risk of being exposed to the virus. Employers should proactively check their workers’ travel and probable exposure to the virus to prevent spread.
In the case of an employee having been exposed to coronavirus, but is not sick, the employee may be able to work from home (if suitable), work from a self-contained place or take leave, if self-isolation is advised by the Ministry of Health. This means that they will continue to be paid. All employees (including part-time and casual employees) who feel unwell can take sick leave, as long as they meet certain employment conditions.
If an employee has run out of sick leave and is sick (or their spouse, partner or dependant is sick), the employee can ask their employer for sick leave in advance, use their annual holidays, ask for advanced annual leave or leave without pay. An employer could also agree to provide additional sick leave or special paid leave.
An employer could decide to close their business temporarily due to coronavirus. In this case, they should first try to negotiate with their employees what type of leave they could take. If no agreement is made, the employer will have to pay the employees during that period. If the business has to close because of a government mandate for a civil emergency, employer won’t be required to pay their employees. These rules apply to all types of employees.
Whichever option the employer and employee agree on may depend on the circumstances, including the nature and extent of the disaster and how long it lasts for. Once all leave entitlements under the Holidays Act 2003 and any negotiated additional leave or any anticipated leave entitlements run out, employees and their employers will need to consider further options in good faith (and consider the impact these options will have on business recovery later).
It is fundamental that businesses plan for employment during civil emergencies, including pandemics, as these situations can potentially affect the health and safety of their employees and their ability to run the business.
Our coronavirus questions and answers document includes more employment situations that could arise around coronavirus.
More information and business contingency planning — Ministry of Health guidance
- Coronavirus up-to-date guidance
- Workplace pandemic influenza guidance
- Coronavirus questions and answers
- Coronavirus self-isolation guidance
- Coronavirus advice for travellers