COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions

We are publishing common questions that we've received about the guidelines for clarification and elaboration. They cover leave and pay, health and safety, and reporting and data. The questions and answers relate to employers, employees or contractors working in the State services. We will update this document as more questions are received.

COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions

INTRODUCTION

The purpose of these guidelines is to support State Services employers to ensure their business continuity planning includes their approach to managing their workforce in the event of a pandemic.

These guidelines on workforce management are intended for core Public Service agencies and the wider State services. The guidelines form part of the all-of-government approach to preparing for and responding to a pandemic.  The State Services Commission (SSC) is working alongside the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Government Health and Safety lead to enable a consistent approach.

The Ministry of Health leads the response to a pandemic and is the key source of information.  State sector employers are expected to support public health messaging from the Ministry of Health.

These guidelines will be updated from time-to-time as new information becomes available. Employers should refer to the version of the guidance published on the SSC website, as this will always be the most up-to-date version.

We have reviewed the guidelines below in the light of Alert levels 3 and 4, and confirm that the guidance set out on leave and pay arrangements still stands.

Further information

Central portal for all information on COVID-19

The Ministry of Health website provides information on pandemic planning and response and the New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Plan.  It currently provides the latest information on the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) outbreak.

Employment New Zealand provides further detailed information about employment during and after disasters and workplace response to COVID-19 (novel coronavirus).

WorkSafe NZ provides information on workplace preparedness for novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

GUIDELINES

These guidelines apply to the New Zealand employment situation and different factors may apply to offshore employees.

Employers will need to determine how to apply this guidance with respect to their agency employment arrangements.

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 at each stage of a pandemic. It 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 during any emergency, including a pandemic, to meet legislative requirements and public expectations.
  • Pandemic planning should address how essential services are maintained, the possibility of workplace closure and should encompass all stages of a pandemic. 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 part of a business continuity or workforce management plan.
  • Employees are expected to remain working during a pandemic, 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.

Employers should ensure they have processes in place to maintain contact with and support for employees who may be out of the workplace for extended periods.

Workforce matters to plan for include:

Maximising coverage of duties during a pandemic

During a pandemic 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, work location and/or hours of work. Planning for this should begin as early as possible and include engagement with relevant unions.
  • Where employment agreements allow flexibility in the type, location and hours of work performed by employees, employers should work with their employees to maximise opportunities provided by this.
  • 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 if others engaged in workplace duties in their own, or another agency, become unable to work. 

Workplace or work is inaccessible

During a pandemic there may be circumstances where an agency is unable to provide work at the local workplace for an employee or employees. For example, a chief executive may need to close the workplace, public transport access to the workplace is restricted, the workplace has been closed by the Medical Officer of Health or an employee is (or is caring for a dependent who is) self-isolated in accordance with public health advice or by direction from the employer in line with advice from the Ministry of Health. In these circumstances:

  • Employees should work remotely (usually from home) wherever practicable (see below), or
  • Where it is not possible for an employee to work remotely, special paid leave should be given.
  • If an employee becomes ill with COVID-19, sick leave should be used. If the employee has insufficient sick leave the employee may anticipate further sick leave or receive additional discretionary leave/paid special leave (ie continue to be paid).

Work is available but the employee is unable to work

During a pandemic, employees may be unable to work due to sickness or a requirement to care for dependants who are sick. In these circumstances:  

  • Sick or dependant leave should be used.
  • If the employee has insufficient sick leave the employee may anticipate further sick leave or receive additional discretionary leave/paid special leave (ie continue to be paid).

Work is available but the employee may not be fully able to work

During a pandemic there may be circumstances where an employee may not be fully available for work. This could be where an employee is required to care for a dependant whose usual care is unavailable or a dependant who is not sick and may require some care, for example as a result of school closure. In these circumstances:

  • Employees should work to the extent possible in the circumstances including working from own home.
  • Where it is not possible for an employee to work from home, and to cover periods of unavailability for work, sick or dependant leave should be used.
  • If the employee has insufficient sick leave the employee may anticipate further sick leave or receive additional discretionary leave/paid special leave (i.e. continue to be paid).

Employee wishes to self-isolate when public health advice does not require it

During a pandemic there may be circumstances where an employee 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 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 might be:

  • The risk to the employee (eg their own health status if they remain in the workplace)
  • 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:

  • Employees should work remotely (usually from home) wherever practicable (see below), or
  • Where it is not possible for an employee to work remotely, special paid leave should be given.
  • If an employee becomes ill, sick leave should be used. If the employee has insufficient sick leave the employee may anticipate further sick leave or receive additional discretionary leave/paid special leave (ie continue to be paid).

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 endeavour to address the employee’s concerns as far as possible and ask the employee to attend work, or agree a leave arrangement (eg annual leave or unpaid special leave).

Working from home

Enabling employees to work remotely, including from home, is an integral part of business continuity planning.  Employers must ensure they are satisfied that they have all the necessary arrangements in place now to achieve this.

This may be to cover situations such as where:

  • There is a recommendation from the Ministry of Health to increase social distancing in the workplace and remote working allows this to be implemented.
  • Public transport is closed, and some employees cannot reasonably get in to work, or the risk of people in the workplace being infected through the use of public transport cannot be reasonably managed.
  • The workplace itself has been isolated/quarantined by a Medical Officer of Health.
  • The worker requests or has been asked to self-isolate.

Where employees work remotely, existing health and safety polices continue to apply.

Return to work

Employers should ensure that employees are fully recovered before they return. Employers have the right to make proper enquiries to make sure that their employees are fit to work and to ensure they 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 a pandemic, when dealing with leave requests from employees, employers need to take into account business continuity planning, public health guidelines and travel advisories from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).  Examples include:

  • Employee has approved leave and intends to travel overseas:

From 15 March 2020, the employee should advise their employer of overseas travel intentions.  Employers should ask employees taking leave if they intend to travel overseas.  Employers and employees should take into account current MFAT travel advice on overseas travel.

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

If the employee still intends to travel overseas, the employer and employee should discuss and agree how any period of self-isolation on return from leave and/or any travel disruptions arising from other countries’ travel restrictions, will be dealt with.  In the first instance for any period of self-isolation, where practicable, the employee should work from home. If working from home is not practicable or because of delays arising from other countries’ travel restrictions, 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 employee, then the period of self-isolation will be unpaid leave.

  • Employee requests leave and intends to travel overseas:

From 15 March 2020, the employee should advise their employer of their travel intentions and employers should ask if the employee intends to travel overseas.  Employers and employees should take into account current MFAT travel advice on overseas travel.

The employer should consider business continuity needs before agreeing to the period of leave.  Employers may decline a leave request on reasonable business grounds but must not unreasonably withhold consent to an employee’s annual leave request.

If the employee still intends to travel overseas, the employer and employee should discuss and agree how any period of self-isolation on return from leave and/or any travel disruptions arising from other countries’ travel restrictions will be dealt with.  In the first instance for any period of self-isolation, where practicable, the employee should work from home. If working from home is not practicable, and for delays arising from other countries’ travel restrictions, 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 employee then the period of self-isolation will be unpaid leave.

  • Employee has approved leave or requests leave and does not intend to travel overseas:

The leave should proceed as planned unless the employer has reasonable business grounds to decline the leave such as business continuity demands.  The employer must not unreasonably withhold consent to an employee’s annual leave request.

Posted employees and families returning to New Zealand

During a pandemic employees posted overseas and/or their recognised partners and dependents (family) may wish to return to New Zealand.  Such requests should be dealt with in line with the 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

In the event of financial hardship affecting an employee, each agency must consider the 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.

Reporting on the status of the State services workforce

SSC has system-wide responsibility to ensure the State services workforce continues to deliver critical public services through the Covid-19 pandemic, focusing on both the immediate ability to deliver, and the long-term sustainability of the State services workforce.  Specifically, SSC has responsibilities under the NZ Pandemic Plan, along with others, for monitoring staff absences through sentinel surveillance in district health boards (DHBs), schools and other State services workplaces. 

The SSC is setting up monitoring and reporting for the State services, with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health leading on monitoring in the Education and Health sectors respectively.

Agencies should note they will be required to report workforce data to the SSC.  Further advice will be provided by the SSC as to the level of reporting and data required as the pandemic progresses.

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