By Vaughan Granier
From midnight on Tuesday 17 August, the Government swiftly moved the entire country to alert level 4 in response to a positive case in the community. Overnight, the case total has grown to five, and while all are directly linked, we’re dealing with the Delta variant, and we can expect the Government’s response will continue to be quick and decisive.
New Zealand will initially spend three days at alert level 4, except for Auckland and Coromandel, which will remain at level 4 for seven days. These lockdown timeframes may be extended if the community risk can’t be contained, so we recommend employers plan and prepare businesses for a longer period at level 4, just in case.
It’s been over a year since employers last had to manage their workforce under level 4 restrictions, so let’s review what the current lockdown orders mean for your business.
Alert Level 4 – eliminate
Physical distancing is one of the most effective ways of eliminating COVID-19 from the community; this is especially the case for the Delta variant – the most transmissible and severe variant of COVID-19 to date. Under Alert Level 4, COVID-19 poses an uncontained community risk. To eradicate the virus, health orders at this level stipulate:
- People stay at home with their household bubble (except for essential food shopping, medical reasons);
- Mask wearing and two metres of physical distance from others is essential;
- All educational facilities close;
- All businesses close except for essential services (such as supermarkets, pharmacies, clinics, refuse removal) and lifeline utilities;
- Only essential workers may leave their home to work: others must work from home if possible;
- Travel is severely limited to essential workers and essential travel only;
- All gatherings are cancelled, and all public venues are closed.
The impact on your business
If your business is deemed essential in accordance with government guidelines, it can continue operating. If only a part of your business offers an essential service, then only that part can stay open at Alert Level 4. Please don’t assume your business is essential – seek clarity by calling the Work and Income helpline on 0800 40 80 40.
Being open for business is not to say it will be “business as usual”. Extensive measures will be needed to ensure the safety of your workers as they remain active in the community and are highly exposed to the potential transmission of the virus.
Workplace safety requirements at Level 4 include:
- A safe distance of two metres between people in the workplace;
- Face coverings are mandatory for all workers and everyone over 12 years old who visits an essential business;
- Display your business QR code and provide a paper-based contact tracing option for workers and customers to use;
- Adjusting work processes to ensure minimal or zero contact between people;
- Good personal hygiene (hand washing/sanitisation); and
- Frequent cleaning of shared spaces.
This article is a reminder of how workplaces can plan for physical distancing.
If your business is not essential, you should be wrapping up operations by temporarily ceasing all operations or transitioning to a “work from home” scenario. What this means is:
- If you can implement alternative working arrangements, such as working from home, you should do so. You should still pay employees who can work remotely;
- If employees can’t work from home and your business isn’t eligible for the wage subsidy, the current default position according to the Employment Relations Authority is that the employees are entitled to be paid. Check employment agreements for a force majeure or business interruption clause which might assist.
- Other solutions to help prevent employees from going without any form of income during the lockdown period include taking annual leave or taking leave in advance.
Financial support at alert Level 4
Employers who expect a loss of 40 per cent revenue or more due to the lockdown may be eligible to apply for the Wage Subsidy. The subsidy will be paid as a two-week lump sum, at an increased weekly rate of $600 for each full-time employee, and $359 for each part-time employee. Applications of the wage subsidy scheme will open on Friday, 20 August on the Work and Income website and payments are expected to be made within 3 days from application
If your business incurs a loss of 30 per cent in revenue, you can apply for the Resurgence Support Payment to cover other business costs as well as wages. Inland Revenue is working to open the resurgence support scheme for employers as soon as possible.
There is a leave support scheme for employees who:
- Need to self-isolate (view here);
- Can’t work because they are sick with COVID-19; or
- Are caring for people self-isolating or who are sick with COVID-19.
The Short-Term Absence Payment is also available for employers to pay employees who are staying home while waiting for a COVID-19 test result. Please note that your business cannot get more than one COVID-19 payment for the same employee at the same time from Work and Income.
The COVID-19 Small Business Cashflow Scheme (SBCS) (ird.govt.nz) is also available to employers who employ less than 50 staff. Businesses will need to show they’re viable, and have experienced a 30 per cent decline in revenue for a month
Finance Minister Grant Robertson will announce more details about income support on Wednesday 18 August.
Level 4 workplace checklist: what you should be doing now
1. Clarify your status as an essential or non-essential business;
2. If you are an essential business:
- ensure the safety of your employees through social distancing, appropriate protective clothing, amended work processes etc.;
- ensure your workers are carrying letters confirming they are essential –HR Assured can assist you to draft these documents; and
- apply for the relevant financial support payments.
3. If you are not an essential business:
- close all site/office operations;
- send all employees home;
- arrange, where possible, for employees to work from home; and
- decide if, and how, you can assist employees financially during the shutdown.
4. If you can’t assist employees financially, and the business needs to cease operating for a while, decide:
- Is this temporary? If so, your options are to: use up annual leave; advance annual leave if possible; unpaid leave; furlough. Remember to work in good faith, to discuss, consult and make decisions wisely; or
- Is this permanent? If so, your options are to: seek legal advice, make employees redundant/terminate for supervening impossibility/force majeure.
Finally, remember that the principles of safety at work and employment law still apply to all employment relationships during a global pandemic. In other words, your obligations to act in good faith, comply with minimum employment standards and keep your employees safe are more important than ever.
HR Assured will continue to provide information to help you manage your business and, to every extent possible, support your employees during these challenging times.
Government advice and official links:
- Unite against COVID-19 (covid19.govt.nz)
- Doing business at Alert Level 4 | Unite against COVID-19 (covid19.govt.nz)
- COVID-19: Locations of interest | Ministry of Health NZ
- Mental Health Foundation
If you have any questions about these restrictions and how they may affect your workplace, feel free to contact the team at HR Assured.
For HR Assured clients, contact our 24/7 Telephone Advisory Service.
Not an HR Assured client and need some advice? The team at HR Assured can support your business on a range of workplace matters. Contact us today to arrange a confidential, no-obligation chat.
Vaughan Granier is the National Workplace Relations Manager for HR Assured NZ. He has over 24 years of experience in international human resources, health and safety, and workplace relations management. With over 10 years working in New Zealand and Australian companies, he provides in-depth support to leadership teams across HR, Health and Safety, and employee management.