Potential impact of Coronavirus on employers and employees

As the number of confirmed cases rise, the outbreak of Novel Coronavirus (Coronavirus) from Wuhan, China is likely on the minds of many people. We have had multiple employers contact us for guidance around responding to the virus in the workplace.

While there have not been any confirmed cases in New Zealand, the Ministry of Health has advised that there is a high likelihood of a imported case appearing at some stage. Additional updates and information can be found on the Ministry of Health website here.

Travel advisory

On 2 February 2020 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) updated their travel advisory for China to the highest status, ‘Do not Travel’. Given this, we advise that employers postpone any work related travel to mainland China until MFAT advises otherwise.

Denial of entry into New Zealand – employees on work visas

As part of the Government’s response to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, it has implemented a direction that after 2 February 2020, entry to New Zealand will be denied to certain people for a period of 14 days (until 16 February 2020).

People that will be denied entry to New Zealand during this time will be those who have been in or transited through mainland China. There is an exception to this direction, meaning that the direction will not apply to New Zealand citizens, permanent residents, residents and their immediate families. However, people on work visas, visitor visas or holiday visas will be denied entry.

This may create difficulties, from an employment perspective, for employees who are unable to return to New Zealand to work. Employers are not required to give employees paid leave in excess of their statutory or contractual entitlements. Suitable alternative arrangements will need to be arranged between the employer and employee to get through until the travel ban is lifted. Such arrangements could be the employee works remotely (where possible) or taking a type of leave (paid or unpaid).

Ministry of Health – self-isolation

The Ministry of Health is now advising anyone who has recently been to mainland China, is displaying symptoms of Coronavirus or been in contact with someone who has, to self-isolate themselves for 14 days. Given this advice, we consider it best practice is to have a discussion with any employees who may fit those categories and reach a sensible arrangement regarding a stand-down period from the workplace. This may include employees taking:

  • Sick leave;
  • Annual leave;
  • Paid special leave;
  • Leave without pay; or
  • A combination of the above.

If practicable, an alternative arrangement may be to facilitate the employee working from home during this period. We also note that there is no provision in the Holidays Act allowing an employer to force an employee to take their accrued sick or annual leave. Unless an employee’s employment agreement contains a specific clause allowing the employer to direct leave to be taken we strongly advise against this practice.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (Act) places an obligation on employers to ensure the health and safety of workers (so far as is reasonably practicable). Additionally, employees are required to comply with any reasonable instruction given to them by the employer. Given this, requiring a high-risk employee to self isolate from the workplace, depending on the circumstances, may be considered a “reasonable instruction” under the Act.

Anyone with questions or concerns regarding the Coronavirus should contact Healthline on 0800 611 116.

While employers should attempt to reach a sensible arrangement with any affected employees regarding a stand down period from work or denial of entry into New Zealand, our team is available to assist with any Employment Law related questions.

Workplace Law team

Employment: Andrew Shaw, Fiona McMillan, Gwen DrewittMaria Green,  Hannah Martin, Joseph HarropHolly StruckmanAlex Beal, Giuliana Petronelli, Abby Shieh
Immigration: Mark Williams, Rachael Mason, Daniel Kruger, Nicky Robertson, Julia StrickettKen Huang, Mary Zhou, Shi Sheng Cai (Shoosh)Sarah Kirkwood, Janeske SchutteLingbo Yu
ACC: Andrew Shaw
Health and Safety: Andrew ShawFiona McMillan

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