Supporting employers through the COVID-19 pandemic
The impact of COVID-19 on Australia and the resulting impacts on Australian businesses and their operations is unprecedented. The Australian Government on the advice of health officials has implemented significant changes to ordinary life in order to try to stay ahead of the curve and as a result for many employers, decisions made now are about survival and will shape the future.
With the concept of ‘business as usual’ completely redefined, ACCI has put together a comprehensive COVID-19 Employer Guide to assist employers manage through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The focus of this information booklet is on covering and answering some of the most common workplace relations and work health and safety issues that are arising for employers as well as common questions that are being asked.
The Federal Government has rolled out a suite of financial stimulus packages to buoy the Australian economy where possible and support employers, employees and those that now find themselves out of work.
The latest tranche of financial support described by the Prime Minister as “the biggest economic lifeline in Australia’s history” is aimed at preserving the employer-employee relationship, keeping more businesses in business and more people in jobs.
The $1,500 per fortnight JobKeeper payment announced on Monday, March 30, will be paid directly to employers to help them keep staff on the books.
ACCI has prepared a JobKeeper Payment – Employer Guide, which seeks to explain and answer some of the more common questions employers may have around the payment scheme, including eligibility as well as the related Fair Work Act changes.
Applications for the JobKeeper scheme are open now. Employers wishing to receive the JobKeeper payment for April should enrol by 31 May 2020 and ensure they have made payments for the first two fortnights (30 March – 12 April, 13 April – 26 April) by 8 May 2020.
Fair Work Act amendments to support JobKeeper
New temporary amendments to the Fair Work Act were made on 8 April 2020 to support the practical operation of the JobKeeper scheme, through Schedule 1 of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus (Measures No.2) Act 2020.
If an employer qualifies for the JobKeeper scheme, and is entitled to JobKeeper payments for a particular employee, additional options will be available to that employer in relation to that employee/s. This applies for the period from 30 March to 27 September 2020.
Provided certain conditions are met, eligible employers may direct an eligible employee to:
- Work fewer days or hours, if the employee cannot be usefully employed for the employee’s normal days or hours because of business changes attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic or government initiatives to slow COVID-19 transmission (JobKeeper enabling stand down direction).
- Perform any duties within their skill and competency.
- Perform duties at a place (including the employee’s home) that is different from the employee’s normal workplace.
Eligible employers can also make the following requests of an eligible employee (provided certain conditions are met):
- Perform work on different days or at different times during a period, compared with the employee’s ordinary days or times of work.
- Take annual leave, down to a balance of two weeks / 10 days.
There is also scope to agree to the taking of double annual leave at half pay.
See ACCI’s JobKeeper Payment – Employer Guide for additional guidance in relation to implementing these options.
Employers covered by enterprise agreements may wish to review scope to vary their enterprise agreements to introduce additional flexibility to help address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Fair Work Commission has prepared a useful summary of the law and considerations in this area (COVID-19 & enterprise agreements).
Following an amendment to the Fair Work Regulations, the access period for a proposed variation of an enterprise agreement has been reduced to one day (down from 7 days). This means that employers will now only be required to give a minimum of one full day’s notice of any proposed variation before it can be put to a vote. This is a temporary change introduced on 17 April 2020 which will be in effect for six months.
There been one major variation to an agreement which the Commission has included on a dedicate page to assist and inform others.
Award changes – unpaid pandemic leave and annual leave flexibility
- Two weeks’ unpaid pandemic leave; and
- The capacity for an employee to take twice as much annual leave at half pay.
These temporary changes aim to assist employers and employees through this unprecedented crisis.
Further details and the full list of modern awards are available in ACCI’s COVID-19 Employer Guide.
Award changes – specific industries
Awards are important in giving employers and employees options to respond to the crisis, with award changes applying to all employers and employees within the coverage of awards, and not being restricted to those eligible for a particular level of hardship / the new JobKeeper scheme.
Employers and unions (with ACCI, Ai Group and the ACTU) are negotiating specific, temporary pandemic response measures by way of schedules modifying the application of modern awards. To date awards have been varied by agreement/consent applying to hospitality, restaurants and clerks.
Flexibilities have encompassed:
- A reduced notice period for close-down.
- Employees being directed to take accrued annual leave with 24 hours’ notice, subject to considering an employees’ personal circumstances.
- Scope to agree double annual leave at half pay.
- A reduction of ordinary hours of work for full-time and part-time employees, by either agreement or direction.
- A reduction in the minimum engagement for part-time and casual employees working from home.
- An increase in the range of duties employees can be required to perform.
- Changes to the spread of ordinary hours of work of day workers working from home.
Each award stands alone, and measures to support jobs and businesses in each industry can vary.
Award changes – paid pandemic leave
The ACTU has also launched a claim for Paid Pandemic Leave in the health and community services sectors which ACCI is addressing with impacted members.
ACCI is an employer representative Member of Safe Work Australia.
We are working closely with SWA to answer questions employers are raising in relation to managing COVID-19 WHS issues.
Safe Work Australia COVID-19 Website information
The Safe Work Australia website has been updated to provide a central hub of work health and safety (WHS) guidance and tools to help Australian workplaces manage the health and safety risks posed by COVID-19.
ACCI is a member of Safe Work Australia and as such is contributing along with WHS regulators, the ACTU and AIG to the review and development of COVID-19 specific guidance on a range of hazards and sectors.
ACCI's WHS&WC Committee has been providing important feedback on this industry and hazard specific COVID19 Guidance and assisting to raise and troubleshoot current practical issues employers in our member network are facing.
The website gives users easy access to guidance. It includes guidance about physical distancing, personal protective equipment, cleaning, workers’ compensation, how to conduct risk assessments and design emergency plans, as well as providing case studies to help explain how to manage the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Go to COVID-19 Information for workplaces and filter the content using the new drop-down menus.
There are 23 industries to choose from as well as general industry information if your industry is not listed.
New information and guidance continue to be developed and the website will be updated with new information as the COVID-19 situation evolves.
Planning tool to help businesses reopen and be COVIDSafe
The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission has created an online planning tool to help business develop a plan to keep their workers, customers and the community safe as they reopen or increase their activities in the weeks and months ahead. ACCI has been involved in reviewing this document in preparation for release.
The tool brings together information from across government on the range of help and assistance available to support businesses. This tool complements the Safe Work Australia online hub.
The online planning should take about 30 minutes to complete and leave businesses with a clear idea about what they will do to keep people safe, how they will get their business back up and running and how they might adapt their operating model.
The planning tool to help businesses reopen and be COVIDSafe can be downloaded from the NCCC website.
Suspension of WHS model Laws Review and SWA work plan
Safe Work Australia and the Attorney-General’s Department advised that the meeting of senior officials to discuss the model laws review will be postponed until after the pandemic. Furthermore, SWA Member's meetings and work requiring consultation or a decision by Members will be paused until it is appropriate to resume.
National Statement of Regulatory Intent - COVID-19
This statement applies to all Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulators in jurisdictions that have implemented the model WHS laws, as well as in Western Australia. The statement does not apply to the WHS Regulator in Victoria at this time. This statement sets out the enforcement approach that Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulators (excluding Victoria) will take to ensure compliance with Australian WHS laws during the COVID-19 pandemic. WHS Regulators recognise that the COVID-19 pandemic has created an exceptional set of circumstances and will have significant impacts on a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) e.g. employers, workers, officers and other persons with duties under WHS laws.
Work Health & Safety Incident Notification
A WHS incident notification fact sheet has been developed by SWA to provide information for PCBU’s on the approach to COVID-19 incident notification laws in each jurisdiction, including details on how to notify when required.
Workers’ Compensation COVID19 Amendments
On Wednesday 13th May, changes were passed to one of the NSW COVID-19 emergency bills making COVID-19 an occupational disease for workers’ compensation purposes.
The provisions provide:
- When a worker engaged in prescribed employment contracts COVID-19, it is presumed that the worker contracted the disease in the course of their employment, automatically entitling them to workers' compensation.
- Workers will receive weekly compensation at standard workers' comp rates until seven days after they are cleared of the disease or have returned to work, and dependents will be eligible for a lump sum death benefit, which currently amounts to about $817,000.
- The benefits apply to full time, part time, contract and casual workers (if they performed work on one or more of the 21 days preceding the illness).
Sectors captured under prescribed employment include: retail industry; healthcare sector; educational institutions; passenger transport services; restaurants, clubs and hotels; the construction industry; places of public entertainment or instruction, including cinemas, museums, galleries, cultural institutions and casinos; the cleaning industry.
The Department of Education, Skills and Employment has updated the factsheet for VET providers to include new information about how VET providers can provide feedback about challenges they are facing as a result of COVID-19.
You can access the updated fact sheet on the department’s website.
For further health advice, or to register for the Infection Control Training, please visit the Department of Health website.
Second Fact Sheet: Supporting Apprentices and Trainees wage subsidy
Late on Wednesday the Department of Education, Skills and Employment released a second fact sheet regarding the Supporting Apprentices and Trainees wage subsidy – including maximum payment amounts and the definition of a small business and well as a Q&A sheet on how the subsidy interacts with the JobKeeper Payment.
Apprentice Wage Subsidy Guidelines
The guidelines for the 50% apprenticeship wage subsidy were issued on Wednesday. The new measure starts on page 90 of the guide.
The guide can be found here.
Fact Sheet: Supporting Apprentices and Trainees wage subsidy
Small Businesses up to 20 employees will be eligible to apply for a wage subsidy for any apprentice and trainee in employment at 1 March 2020. The subsidy is for 50% of the wage up to $21,000 ($7000) and payable at each quarter from 1 January 2020.
Employers of any size including Group Training Organisations who re-employ a displaced apprentice will also be eligible for the subsidy.
The Government has released a factsheet detailing the cash flow assistance available for businesses under the new stimulus package.