Can a boss tell all staff if one of their employees gets coronavirus or displays symptoms?
Under the Privacy Act, there is a general obligation for a boss not to disclose personal information about an employee, unless an exception applies.
One of the exceptions is where you believe that disclosure is necessary to prevent or lessen the risk of a serious threat to someone's safety, wellbeing or health.
Does coronavirus (Covid-19) meet that criteria as a notifiable, potentially fatal disease?
The Herald put two scenarios to Privacy Commissioner John Edwards.
1. A staffer has been overseas and has Covid-19 symptoms, but self-isolates rather than returning to work immediately. Should staff be told that person has Covid-19?
"The answer is no," Edwards says. "The employer does not definitely know if the staff member has the Covid-19 virus. Therefore there are Privacy Act Principle 8 issues. As the employee has chosen to go into isolation so as to not potentially expose their colleagues, there is no health and safety imperative for the employer to disclose this information to other staff members. The employer should discuss with the quarantining staff member how they want to deal with any announcement to colleagues."
2. A staffer turns up at work for a couple of days and displays possible Covid-19 symptoms, then is sent home. Should staff be told that person possibly has Covid-19, or if they subsequently test positive?
"The Privacy Act does allow for disclosure if there's a serious threat so staff can take precautions to protect themselves," Edwards says.
"One of the exceptions which permit the use or disclosure of personal information is where you believe that the use or disclosure is necessary in order to prevent or lessen the risk of a serious threat to someone's safety, wellbeing or health.
"Under this exception, when dealing with an employee who may have contracted a highly contagious disease, it may be prudent to advise other employees so they can monitor themselves for possible symptoms, isolate themselves from the workplace and take steps to protect themselves.
"It may not be necessary to identify the source of the exposure but there will be times when that will be unavoidable in the context, such as in a small organisation or office where only one person is absent on sick leave."
Employers grapple with isolation issues
Beyond the sanctity of their personal privacy, there's another reason an employee might want to keep Covid-19 symptoms to themselves.
Most people only qualify for five days' annual sick leave - only enough to get them halfway through the standard two-week stint for coronavirus self-isolation.
Conferenz MD Steve Scott says his company has adopted a temporary 14-day sick leave policy so "no sick leave" is not a reason to come to work with cold/flu symptoms.
Staff with symptoms are told to stay away from the office, with a work-from-home option available if they are up to it.
And NZ technology industry lobby group NZRise has called on the government to nudge Crown agencies from what it sees as a bias towards "bums on seats in the office" over remote working.
The Herald put NZRise's call to Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford and Communications Minister Faafai.
Twyford responded on the pair's behalf: "I'm advised the State Service Commission is providing workforce guidance to enable public service workers to work remotely and is updating their information as the situation unfolds."