More than two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia’s National Cabinet announced on Sept. 30, an end to mandatory COVID-19 isolation commencing Oct. 14.
From this date, individuals who test positive for COVID-19 will no longer be required to isolate for any mandatory isolation period. The Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment will also end, meaning that employees without leave entitlements, will no longer have access to this payment if they test positive to COVID-19 and cannot attend for work.
While nearing the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is welcome news, given isolation will be voluntary for individuals, businesses will need to consider how best to manage employees who test positive for COVID-19, including understanding work health and safety obligations and continued risks with COVID-19 in the workplace.
Work Health and Safety Obligations
Broadly, businesses have responsibilities under work health and safety legislation across states and territories to provide, so far as reasonably practicable, a safe and healthy working environment. This includes having a plan to keep the workplace safe and healthy, managing COVID-19 risks and minimizing COVID-19 infection.
Given changes to isolation rules, businesses will need to be mindful of the risks that employees who test positive for COVID-19 pose.
How Can Employers Keep Employees Safe Despite Changes?
Changes to COVID-19 isolation rules mean businesses will need to consider how they manage employees who test positive to COVID-19 who are no longer required by public health order to isolate.
Businesses should consider the following to ensure they are meeting work health and safety obligations:
- If employees test positive to COVID-19, consider directing those employees to work from home during this period—provided it is lawful and reasonable to do so in the circumstances, including with regard to the terms and conditions of an employee’s employment contract.
- Encourage employees to use their personal leave if they are unfit to work due to COVID-19.
- Continuing to encourage all employees who have symptoms of COVID-19, whether or not they have tested positive for COVID-19, to work from home or to take personal leave as appropriate in the circumstances.
- If employees are not able to work from home, or are asymptomatic, consider implementing the following measures in the workplace to mitigate transmission: direct employees to wear masks in the workplace if they test positive to COVID-19; continue physical distancing; practice hygiene measures including hand washing and the use of sanitizer; and continuing to ensure the workplace is regularly cleaned and disinfected.
The above processes and procedures will go toward ensuring, so far as reasonably practicable, a safe and healthy workplace.
Risks of Employees Contracting COVID-19 in the Workplace
The risk for businesses is that employees who test positive to COVID-19 may transmit COVID-19 to others in the workplace. If an employee contracts COVID-19 in the workplace, they may be able to make a claim for workers’ compensation.
In addition, workplace regulators such as SafeWork NSW or WorkSafe Victoria may also investigate a business’s compliance with work health and safety requirements. Should businesses not manage COVID-19 isolation changes adequately, there may be operational and reputational issues that arise.
Given the above, businesses should review and consider any COVID-19 policies in place to include changes to isolation rules. Businesses should be mindful of any relevant consultation obligations, should they adopt any new work health and safety practices in relation to COVID-19. Reviewing employment contracts should also be front of mind to ensure businesses can rely on their terms to direct employees to work from home should they test positive to COVID-19.
Deivina Peethamparam is an attorney with Gadens in Melbourne, Australia. © 2022 Gadens. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission of Lexology.