COMMENT:

Kiwi employers should prepare for the potential risk of a pandemic, as worldwide concern about the spread of the novel coronavirus increases.

Since the outbreak of the deadly disease in Wuhan, China, there have been around 60,000 confirmed cases of the virus across 28 countries.

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Our health authorities have warned us to expect cases in New Zealand, despite the government's guidelines for self-isolation and restrictions on foreign travel from China.

Now is the time for Kiwi employers to prepare for a potential pandemic, and to ensure workplaces remain safe during an outbreak.

What are your health and safety obligations for workers?

Health and safety at work is paramount, and employers must ensure the health and safety of workers during a pandemic.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, employers must mitigate health and safety risks, such as spread of infection, and protect their workers and others at work from this risk so far as is reasonably practicable.

How can you reduce the risk of spreading infection?

Company directors and other "officers" under the Act must exercise due diligence to ensure compliance with health and safety. Due diligence during a pandemic includes taking reasonable steps to:

• Read Government guidelines to understand how to reduce the risk of infection, including Foreign Affairs travel advisory notes, and self-isolation guidelines from the Ministry of Health.

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• Provide appropriate resources to minimise the risk of spreading infection, such as hand sanitisers, face masks, disposable gloves and other protective equipment for staff who might encounter the disease, such as healthcare workers.

• Request, or require staff to work from home or take leave if they have been exposed to potential infection.

• Close down business if there is a widespread risk of disease at work, or the employer is otherwise unable to operate due to a pandemic.

Can you ask or require staff to take leave?

Employers can ask staff infected with novel coronavirus to take sick leave and return to work upon medical clearance.

During a pandemic, employers can ask workers who have been exposed to the virus to stay away from work to avoid putting others at risk of infection. Likewise, employees may refuse to attend work if they have reasonable grounds to believe that reporting for work may expose them to serious harm.

Since the Government has triggered a pandemic response, employers should tell staff to follow the Ministry of Health guidelines that require self-isolation for 14 days upon return from China or exposure to novel coronavirus.

Employees who are absent from work due to exposure to the virus may be able to work from home. Otherwise, it is generally best practice that employers pay staff during their absence from work.

Both parties should discuss and agree whether the period of absence is special paid leave, annual leave, or sick leave. The parties may agree that the employee's absence is paid sick leave, regardless of eligibility for sick leave under the Holidays Act 2003.

In some circumstances, employers may invoke force majeure clauses in employment agreements, which can require staff to take annual leave during their absence from work.

If an employee refuses to stay away from work, the employer may be able to suspend them on full pay for putting the workplace at risk.

How can you continue business during a pandemic?

While it may not be business as usual, many employers continue operating businesses through a pandemic. The severity of the pandemic may determine the level of disruption to your workplace.

Preparation of a business continuity plan is key for business survival. Business continuing planning should include meeting with staff to discuss how to manage the risk of a pandemic.

If you would like staff to work from home, provide them with remote IT systems and appropriate security. Use technology like Skype and Zoom to engage in discussions without risk of exposure to the virus. Check regularly with staff about their health and wellbeing, and keep them informed on business decisions.

For more information on Coronavirus, contact Healthline on their dedicated Coronavirus freephone: 0800 358 5453.

For more information on how to comply with your employer obligations, vie the CCH KiwiBoss webinar live on 11 March 2020 or on demand: Employer's Guide to Preparing for a Pandemic.