Guidelines

These guidelines should be read in the context of the current COVID-19 alert level response, either nationally or regionally. Where alert levels vary regionally, the way these guidelines are applied may need to vary accordingly.

These guidelines will be updated regularly as the situation evolves.

The guidelines apply to State services agencies and their employees in New Zealand. Different factors may apply to State services employees offshore and staff engaged in other jurisdictions.

The Tertiary Education Commission has advised Tertiary Education Institutions in the wider State sector that they should also apply these guidelines.

Employers will need to determine how to apply the guidelines to respective agency employment arrangements.

These guidelines are issued as part of the State Services Commission’s Workplace workstream responsibilities in the New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Plan.

Overall principles

The overall goal should be to implement a business continuity plan that provides for care and flexibility for employees, emphasises the need to put employees’ and others’ safety first and ensures services are maintained as close to normal as possible for the COVID-19 response alert level in place. The business continuity plan also needs to ensure obligations under the Health and Safety in the Workplace Act 2015 are met. In particular the following principles apply:

  • Chief executives should lead with a strong message that the State services have always had a duty in times of national emergency to maintain government services.
  • Public services should continue to be delivered to the fullest extent possible to meet legislative requirements and public expectations
  • Planning for all stages of the pandemic should address how essential services are maintained, and the possibility of workplace closure. This includes reducing or minimising risks of contagion to people in the workplace and ensuring the wellbeing of employees.
  • Business continuity plans must be up-to -date and cater for scenarios arising from Ministry of Health-directed measures such as quarantine and compulsory self-isolation.
  • Where appropriate, employers should engage unions early in the development of their pandemic planning and in any updates.
  • Employees are expected to continue to attend the workplace in line with their usual employment arrangements, except where alternatives are activated as required by the COVID-19 response alert level and part of a business continuity or workforce management plan.
  • Employees are expected to remain working during a pandemic, in line with public health guidance, unless they are on agreed leave.

General advice

Employers should keep good employer practice in mind and do whatever they practicably can to enable people in the workplace to stay safe. Employers must have policies and procedures in place to manage the risk of transmission of infection within the workplace.

Employers’ flexible working policies should be maximised to support employees to continue working wherever possible, including working remotely.

Workforce matters

The Government Property Group within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has worked with the Ministry of Health and the Government Health and Safety Lead to provide guidance for managing workplaces during COVID-19. This guidance, and accompanying workplace principles, helps agencies manage their workplaces through all COVID-19 alert levels.

State services employers will need to ensure that their approach to workforce matters is consistent with this advice.

Working from home

For many agencies, ensuring that services can continue to be delivered through the different alert levels of the pandemic response will depend on employees working from home.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, agencies have a duty to ensure workers are not put at risk by the work they do or by their workplace. Employers should have processes to maintain contact with and support for employees who may be out of the workplace for extended periods.

If workers are working from home, their home is considered a workplace and agencies have a responsibility to eliminate or minimise the risks as much as reasonably practicable. More information about working from home during COVID-19 has been developed by the Government Health and Safety Lead.

Obligations to essential workers unable to work from home

Agencies (as Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking [PCBUs]) still have an obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 to eliminate or manage risks to workers, as far as is reasonably practicable. Agencies should use a risk assessment process to identify the level of risk to workers, appropriate controls to protect them, and regularly check the performance of these controls. WorkSafe has advice here which includes links to the Ministry of Health’s guidance on infectious disease prevention and control for workplaces.

In frontline roles that provide essential services, where elimination or isolation is not an option (ie, the service cannot be provided over the phone or in a non-contact setting), agencies must follow the guidance provided by WorkSafe COVID-19: health and safety at work - advice for essential businesses and the Ministry of Health COVID-19: Advice for essential workers, including personal protective equipment to put in place the necessary controls to ensure safety of essential workers.

Agencies should identify workers who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 or have someone in their household unit or ‘bubble’ who is more vulnerable (eg, those with underlying health conditions or older workers etc), and follow the guidance above from WorkSafe and Ministry of Health to minimise the risk to those workers.

In moving from alert level 4 an agency may need a small number of employees who are not ‘essential workers’ to work in the workplace. This would only apply to critically important work or services that cannot be delivered remotely. In this case the provisions above would apply.

Maximising coverage of duties

It may be necessary for some employees to cover work that is usually performed by other employees that is not within the scope of their role. It is likely that in some cases, express agreement may be needed.

As part of the planning process:

  • Employers should adopt and promote an approach to staff voluntarily agreeing to temporarily change work functions, location and/or hours of work. This should include engagement with relevant unions.
  • Where employment agreements allow flexibility in the type, location and hours of work, employers should work with their employees to maximise any opportunities.
  • Agencies with lower priority functions should consider exploring where their employees may be able to assist priority service delivery by other agencies. These employees could agree to be on call for others who may become unable to work. See the COVID-19 Workforce Mobility Guidance for State Services Agencies for further information.

Workplace or work is inaccessible

There are circumstances where an agency will be unable to provide work at the local workplace for employees for a period of time. For example, at higher alert levels (alert levels 4 and 3) most non-essential State services workers must work from home, many worksites and schools may be closed and public transport access to work is restricted. At lower alert levels there may be limited access to work in the workplace or an employee may be self-isolated (or caring for a dependant in self-isolation) in accordance with public health advice or by direction from the employer following Ministry of Health advice. In these circumstances:

  • Employees should work remotely (usually from home) wherever practicable
  • Where it is not possible for an employee to work remotely, special paid leave should be given, paid at normal rates.
  • If the employee has insufficient sick leave, they may receive additional discretionary leave/paid special leave so they can continue to be paid.

Work is available but the employee is unable to work

Employees may be unable to work due to COVID-19 related sickness or a requirement to care for dependants who are similarly unwell. In these circumstances:

  • Sick or dependant leave should be used, and payment should be in line with usual agency practice.
  • If the employee has insufficient sick leave, they may receive additional discretionary leave/paid special leave so they can continue to be paid.

Employees may be unable to work, or only partially available to work, if they need to care for a dependant whose usual care is unavailable or who is not sick but may require some care. An example of this is as a result of COVID-19 related restrictions on school attendance. In these circumstances:

  • Employees should work to the extent possible, including from home.
  • Where it is not possible for an employee to work from home, and to cover periods of unavailability for work, dependant leave (or equivalent) if applicable should be used.
  • If the employee has insufficient dependant leave, or dependant leave is only available in relation to sickness, they may receive additional discretionary leave/paid special leave so they can continue to be paid. Dependant leave or paid special leave is paid as per normal agency practice.

Access to and payment of special leave for casual employees

There will be circumstances where a casual employee was engaged to work during a period in which the workplace is closed due to the requirements of the COVID-19. If the casual employee therefore is not able to work, special leave should be provided as with other employees.

Although a casual engagement can be ended by giving the appropriate notice in the agreement, agencies should also honour any rostered/agreed commitment that may exist for the period a workplace is inaccessible.

Some casual employees are engaged on a frequent, casual basis – for example where called on at short notice a number of times in a typical period. In these circumstances the employer would have expected to utilise the casual employee during a period the workplace is inaccessible. In the context of the COVID-19 response, State services employers should consider paying a typical average level of pay for the period, to continue to support an important employment group and to recognise that these employees do not have access to support through the Government’s wage subsidy scheme.

Employee wishes to stay at home or self-isolate when public health advice does not require it

There may be circumstances where an employee is expected to attend the workplace but may not wish to attend work because they feel it puts them or others at risk. For example, an employee may be concerned about the risk of contracting an infection in the workplace or transmitting an infection to others even if this is not indicated by public health advice.

Employers should take a health and safety risk-based approach to understand and investigate the concerns of their employee in good faith. The employer will need to determine an appropriate response in line with employer and employee duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 and advice from the Ministry of Health. Some relevant factors are:

  • The risk to the employee (eg, their own health status if they remain in the workplace) or those in their household unit or ‘bubble’.
  • The risk to other people in the workplace (eg, if a person in the employee’s home is sick with COVID-19 symptoms but has not yet been tested, or is in self-isolation).

If the parties agree that the employee should self-isolate based on public health guidelines and health and safety advice, employers should follow the advice for when a workplace or work is inaccessible

If after considering public health guidelines and health and safety advice, the employer does not agree that the employee should self-isolate:

  • Employers should treat the situation as a work from home request, generously applying the employer’s policy, and agree the employee works remotely wherever practicable.
  • Where it is not possible for an employee to work remotely, the employer should try to address the employee’s concerns as far as possible and ask the employee to attend work, or agree a leave arrangement such as annual leave or unpaid special leave.

Return to work

Employers should ensure that any employees who have been unwell are fully recovered before they return to work. Employers have the right to make sure that their employees are fit to work and meet obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.

Leave provisions should be applied in a way that does not lead an employee returning to work too early and placing others at risk.

Leave requests

During the COVID-19 pandemic employers are encouraged to take a lenient approach to requests to cancel pre-booked leave. Many planned activities or events that employees may have been pre-arranged will be cancelled due to the pandemic. Rescheduling leave for future dates may also prove difficult given our uncertain environment.

It is important that employers convey that annual leave is still an option for employees who may wish to use it despite restrictions.

At all alert levels of the COVID-19 response, employees should advise their employer whether pre-approved annual leave requests or new annual leave requests involve travel within New Zealand or overseas. Employers should ask employees requesting leave if they intend to travel during their leave (including outside their regions at level 3).

Annual leave requests which do not involve travel should proceed as planned unless the employer has reasonable business grounds to decline it, such as business continuity demands. The employer must not unreasonably withhold consent to an employee’s annual leave request.

If annual leave is for overseas travel it is important to note that New Zealanders are advised not to travel overseas at this time due to the outbreak of COVID-19 associated health risks and travel restrictions. The New Zealand border closed to most foreign travellers at 23:59, Thursday 19 March 2020. From 10 April all people arriving into New Zealand must go into managed isolation or quarantine.

The employee and employer should consider whether the leave can be rescheduled or reviewed closer to the time the leave is due.

If, for any reason an employee requesting annual leave still intends to travel overseas, or within New Zealand, contrary to public health advice the employer and employee should discuss and agree how the required period of isolation or quarantine on return from leave should apply. In the first instance for any period of isolation, if practicable, the employee should work remotely. If working remotely is not practicable, other forms of leave should be considered such as annual leave or special leave with or without pay.

If agreement cannot be reached between the employer and the employee, then the period of isolation or quarantine will be unpaid leave.

Employers and employees should regularly refer to updates on travel advice provided by The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Immigration New Zealand

Public holiday payment

ANZAC day, Good Friday and Easter Monday (and any other subsequently affected public holiday period) should be paid according to the Holidays Act or the employment agreement.

Posted employees and families returning to New Zealand

During a pandemic, employees posted overseas and/or their recognised partners and dependants (family) may wish to return to New Zealand. Such requests should be dealt with in line with public health advice, the prevailing alert level and overall principles and general advice of these guidelines and consideration of:

  • The individual circumstances of the employee and their family
  • The health and safety of the employee and family if they were not to return to New Zealand
  • Any risks to the employee and/or workplace if the employee were to return to New Zealand
  • Factors to consider in assessing risk include:
    • The prevalence of COVID-19 in country
    • The level of confidence in the reporting of COVID-19 in country
    • The quality of medical care and facilities in country
    • The nature of the government response in country
    • The ease of travel in and out of the country.

Where it is agreed that the employee and/or their recognised partners and dependents will return to New Zealand, the organisation’s repatriation policies apply. Any period of self-isolation is to be dealt with in accordance with the guidelines above.

Financial hardship

If an employee is having financial problems, each agency must consider individual circumstances and use their own judgement to determine what support/intervention is best suited to assist the employee. There may also be options to consider through the Ministry of Social Development.

Other workers

In line with obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, employers will need to ensure consideration is given to other workers in the workplace such as contractors, labour hire company employees and volunteers.

Employers should engage these workers, or the workers’ employer as applicable, in their planning. In particular, employers should work with labour providers to ensure the provider’s approach supports their employees not to be in the workplace when they may be at risk or place others at risk. This may include directing them not to attend the workplace and/or supporting them to work off site. Arrangements around the employment and/or payment of sick or other leave to contractors should be done with direct reference to the specific contracts for services agencies have with individual contractors. Self-employed contractors, employees of contracting organisations and sole traders are eligible for the Government’s COVID-19 wage subsidy scheme.

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