In December 2021, Aotearoa - New Zealand moved out of the Alert Level system, and into the COVID-19 Protection Framework system (also referred to as the Traffic Light System). This change signified a shift in New Zealand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic; from an elimination strategy, to a minimisation and protection strategy to manage the risk of an outbreak or spread of COVID-19. For some, this change was overdue, for others, it made them nervous and more cautious. You will have employees in both categories, and everywhere else in between. As at the date of this blog post, the entire country is in the Red setting.
With the change to our national response to the pandemic, the rise of the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, around the world, the introduction of booster doses and Rapid Antigen Tests in New Zealand, and the planned re-opening of the New Zealand international border, businesses should be:
- reviewing their COVID-19 policies and procedures to ensure they are still fit for purpose; and
- regularly talking to employees about COVID-19, and how it is affecting their work and their personal circumstances.
Are your COVID-19 policies and procedures still fit for purpose?
Here are a few topics to consider in light of the above changes:
- Are all of the above upcoming changes included in your policies and procedures? For example, do you plan to use Rapid Antigen testing; do you have a policy that refers to “two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine”, but makes no reference to a booster dose, etc.?
- Has the risk of COVID-19 in your workplace changed (especially in light of Omicron which the Government has advised is more infectious)? For example, think about whether the COVID-19 vaccine (including booster doses) needs to play a role; whether your people will now be exposed to unidentified members of the public; are your people travelling domestically and / or internationally; has your business embraced a more flexible / remote form of work, etc.?
- Do you have a plan for each setting of Red, Orange and Green (or plans for if we revert back to the Alert Level system), and have they been considered in the context of the employee experience? For example, do employees know when they need to work from home, and do they have access to the right equipment; do employees have the right PPE to carry out their work safely; do they know what types of leave they need to apply for should they need to isolate, etc.?
- Is the business collecting any personal information from its employees, and is that information being used and stored securely, in accordance with the Privacy Act 2020?
- Do you have a plan for a high level of absences (employees on sick leave, awaiting test results, etc.)? For example, is there an ability to re-assign people temporarily to different work, to ensure business operations can continue, etc.?
How are your employees?
Even during difficult and challenging times for a business, employers still need to comply with their obligation of good faith. This includes, but is not limited to, communicating with employees.
To create a positive employee experience, our view is that communicating with your employees is more than asking something to the effect of “do you need anything else to get your work done”, rather it should be more targeted and personalised for each person. For example:
- If someone in your team lives alone and the business has a policy that workers can’t come into the office, find out if they are getting the social stimulation and connection that they need;
- If someone in your team is considered “vulnerable” check that they are feeling safe and secure in the workplace, and if not, what else might they need to feel that way.
A happy and supported person, should be able to ride out the ups and downs of living and working during a pandemic. If you’ve got a large team, and there isn’t the capacity to speak with each person individually on a regular basis, the business could create real opportunities to raise concerns / questions / issue, so that employees feel supported and encouraged to do so.
Through regular communication and interaction, your business should be able to recognise and address themes which the team feeds back to you. This information will help inform and design any process that might need to be put in place to help it cope and flex with COVID-19.
Changes to employment law
The pandemic has been the cause for many changes to employment law. The following changes were two of the key amendments made to the Employment Relations Act, at the end of 2021:
- Employees are entitled to paid time off to be vaccinated so long as that time off will not unreasonably disrupt the business, or the employee’s performance of their duties. While the definition of “vaccinated” doesn’t currently include a booster dose in it, the Government has indicated that changes to this definition will be coming in late January 2022.
- If an employee is unvaccinated but they work in a role which is required to be performed by a person who is vaccinated (either because of a Government Mandate or the employer has made that decision), and the decision is to terminate the employee’s employment, they must be given the greater of either:
a. 4 weeks’ notice, or
b. the notice that is specified in their employment agreement.
Before reaching that decision, it’s crucial the employer has explored all other reasonable alternatives for example, working from home, reduced duties, etc.
And while yes there have been changes, the cornerstones of employment law have not changed, here are some important reminders:
- An employer cannot make changes to an employee’s employment agreement without their agreement to it e.g. their pay, their hours, etc.;
- An employer can decide on a reasonable basis, that the work in its business need to be performed by vaccinated workers; and
- An employer should support their worker to comply with Ministry of Health requirements and guidance (don’t forget about the payment schemes which are available to employers – currently the Leave Support Scheme, and the Short Term Absence Scheme).
As always, this article is intended to provide general guidance and information – it is not advice, and the information surrounding COVID-19 is ever-developing. If you have any questions about the content, or would like to discuss your business’ particular circumstances, please get in touch with your usual Humankind contact or contact [email protected]