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.
Mentally Healthy Workplaces
ACCI and other members of the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance and Ahead for Business have created three new guides to support mentally healthy workplaces across Australia.
The guides have been designed to provide Australian businesses and workplaces with evidence-based, easy to use the information to support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees and to encourage mentally healthy workplaces during COVID-19.
They will enable you to actively support the mental health of workers through the challenges of COVID-19; understand workplace obligations related to mental health; and help people connect to available mental health services.
Specifically, the three resources have been developed for:
- Sole traders
- Small business, and
- Medium to large business.
These guides and posters can be found on the National Mental Health Commission’s website.
Work health & safety regulators have helped meet the need for COVIDSafe guidance for employers in response to our advocacy this year. Unfortunately, the focus on practical COVID-related support for workplaces has shifted recently to a resource-intensive non-COVID work plan and a return to prescriptive Codes of Practice. The ACTU wants a Code of Practice for COVID-19. We see this as an additional burden on businesses at a time when we are encouraging a focus on jobs and recovery, but a majority of states and territories are siding with unions to support the Code. ACCI has asked state and territory-based members to lobby their governments to oppose it.
COVID PPE Supply
ACCI continues to provide feedback to Government on industry issues in relation to supply, demand and cost of PPE and cleaning and hygiene equipment.
ACCI participated on the Health Industry Coordination Group under Minister Andrews and DISER as well as on various targeted sub-committees. ACCI continues to attend Minister Andrews' Supply Chain Roundtables each Friday and has weekly meetings with DISER.
Current issues (July) include:
- Some continuing shortages of PPE for general industry.
- PPE sourcing issues for small business for non-medical workforce.
- The AMGC register requires greater visibility and to increase contract conversion rates.
- Small business operators are mostly going out to retail stores to purchase essential PPE. This is leading to broadscale cost escalation to normal business trading that is disproportionately affecting small business owners. Some are able to cost-recover while others are not.
- Quality assurance issues.
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 COVID-19 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.
For information: New and updated COVID-19 guidance
Guidance on Masks and PPE for all industries has been updated in line with the latest advice from the Commonwealth Department of Health and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. The Types and uses of face masks infographic has also been updated.
The COVID-19 WHS incident notification fact sheet has also been updated with new information about incident notifications in Victoria.
Suspension of WHS model Laws Review and SWA work plan
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, jurisdictions indicated that WHS ministers would not be in a position to give full consideration to the recommendations from the 2018 Review of model WHS laws, as per the original timetable of the first half of 2020, as the immediate focus was on the issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. This decision also took account of the resourcing pressures of the pandemic on employer and employee stakeholders.
As jurisdictions and stakeholders are returning to more normal operations, coordination of WHS ministers’ consideration of the response to the 2018 Review will resume as soon as practicable. The Attorney-General’s Department is in the process of seeking views on a revised timeframe.
National Statement of Regulatory Intent - COVID-19
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.
National Safe Work Month (NSWM) 2020
The theme for National Safe Work Month (NSWM) 2020 is Work health and safety through COVID-19 –chosen to acknowledge and reflect the wide-reaching impacts of COVID-19.
The campaign kit will be published on the SWA website in the next few weeks for stakeholders.
NCCC 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 planning tool to help businesses reopen and be COVIDSafe can be downloaded from the NCCC website.
MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES FOR SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS
COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the Australian economy, in particular on small and family businesses. With the many challenges presented by COVID-19, understandably, small business owners may be feeling stressed and anxious.
There are resources available to assist including:
- Beyond Blue has developed free resources to assist you to find the information you need to feel confident in playing a support role. These can be accessed at org.au
- The My Business Health web portal offers dedicated holistic support to you to manage your outgoings, to access financial support, to prepare, respond and recover as the economy reopens, and how to seek out emotional support.
- Every mind’s Ahead for Business, is another online resource specially designed to help you understand your mental health, manage business stress and provides tailored recommendations, information and programs.
Importantly, immediate assistance is available through each of these resources via a phone number, chat line, or referral to other services if in crisis.
Apprenticeship Wage Subsidy Extended
A key ACCI advocacy aim over the last few months has been the need to extend the apprenticeship wage subsidy. The government’s announcement that the 50% wage subsidy for apprentices and trainees will be extended until March 2020 is a welcome injection of funds to preserve skills development. In addition to small businesses already covered, the wage subsidy will now also be available to medium businesses with less than 200 employees for apprentices employed as at 1 July 2020. According to the government estimates, around 180,000 apprentices and 90,000 small and medium businesses that employ them will now be supported, with the program extended by six months to March 2021.
The JobTrainer package also includes $500m from the Commonwealth to be matched by the State and Territory Government to support people to access training, both qualifications and skillsets, in areas identified as skills in demand in the current economic environment. According to the Minister “the National Skills Commission are going to work directly with the states and territories to ensure that we are targeting the areas of demand in their particular state or territory. But I don't think it will come as any surprise to people to know, you know; mining and resources, construction, ICT, health aged and disability care. They're the obvious ones where we know there is that growth.”
The governments have agreed to sign a new Heads of Agreement to finalise a new funding agreement with new KPIs that reforms the system. The aim is to finalise the new arrangement by August 2021. ACCI’s media release welcoming the announcement can be found here.
Prime Minister places spotlight on skills
Department of Education, Skills and Employment - Jobs Hub
The Australian Government is supporting job seekers and employers to connect in the rapidly changing job market with the development of a new tool, Jobs Hub. The tool provides an up to date list of some of the businesses and organisations that are currently hiring, how to contact them of you are looking for work, as well as the latest information on jobs by location.
The National Skills Commission (NSC)
As we face the COVID-19 crisis and the impact on the economy, it is crucial to understand what’s happening in the labour market, the structural shifts that will occur and the skilling and re-training needed to get people back to work. The NSC has launched a new website to learn more about labour market data and analysis, skills forecasting and VET pricing and performance to help students make more informed choices surrounding where the skills gaps and jobs are with the help of the National Careers Institute (NCI).
Australian Industry and Skills Committee (AISC)
The Australian Industry and Skills Committee is working to ensure Australia’s national training system is well positioned to address the workforce challenges presented by COVID-19. On the 3rd of April, the COAG Skills Council considered a set of urgent national actions in response to COVID-19 to preserve a core capability in Australia’s training system, ensure the system can rapidly respond to areas of critical workforce skilling needs during the pandemic, and help displaced Australian workers transition into high demand sectors and areas experiencing workforce shortages. This included agreement to enable short-term and urgent adjustments to be made to training package requirements to support training delivery.
AISC has established the Emergency Response Sub-committee to address these critical issues. The sub-committee held its first meeting on the 8th of April 2020, holding weekly meetings until mid-June.
Development of COVID-19 Skillset
As part of the national COVID-19 response, AISC is developing resources for the delivery of a new skill set: COVID-19 Critical Skills Point of Care Testing, which so far includes the following units: Point of care testing for COVID-19 diagnosis (available now) and Testing for after care diagnosis (available early June).
Extension of Supporting Apprentices and Trainees Measure
In line with the announcement of the JobKeeper support mechanism on the 30 of March 2020, the Government will increase the value of the Supporting Apprentices and Trainees wage subsidy to the same value as JobKeeper ($1,500 per fortnight) for GTOs, where the Host Employer of any size is receiving the JobKeeper Payment and retains their apprentice. This change will apply from 1 April 2020.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) information for vocational education and training (VET) providers
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.