Last week we shared tips on managing illness in the workplace when employees are returning from travel overseas. While our guidelines can be applied to other general situations and travel illnesses, we are of course watching the recent outbreak of Coronavirus in China specifically, and how this may impact employers here in Australia.

We are receiving a lot of queries from those unsure how to deal with employees who may have been travelling in China. The situation changing fast however, below we have provided the most current advice we have as at the 5th February.

Can employees returning from China return to work?

The current advice is that individuals returning from China do not need to self-isolate if they:

  • are not showing any symptoms of the virus and
  • have not been to Wuhan or to the Hubei province.

These employees should be fit to attend public spaces and work. You may however want to take the extra precaution of protecting your workforce by directing all employees who have recently returned from China, to remain at home for at least 14 days, and to obtain medical clearance before returning to work. The costs of obtaining a medical clearance would be the responsibility of the employer as the employee is not symptomatic and has not been in the affected areas.

It’s also important to note that in this case, the employer would need to consider this leave as special paid leave, and NOT deduct from the employee’s accrued personal or annual leave entitlements.

What about employees returning from Wuhan or the Hubei province?

For employees returning from Wuhan or the Hubei province, employers should comply with current WHO advise which is to direct those employees to remain at home in self quarantine for at least 14 days from their arrival in Australia, before returning to the workplace.

How do we know it is safe for employees to return to work?

Where an employee has been directed to stay isolated and not attend work for a period after returning from China, we would recommend that employers insist on a medical clearance before allowing the employee to return to the workplace.

For more information on this see our article here.

Managing Leave Entitlements and Obligations

If the employee is showing signs or symptoms of the virus, and has been to Wuhan or the Hubei province, then they should have this period of leave processed as paid personal leave (or unpaid personal leave if paid personal leave accruals have been exhausted). This leave type would also apply if the employee is a carer required to remain at home to care for children or the elderly, who are in isolation.

As mentioned, if they have not been to the specified areas and are not symptomatic, but are instructed to not attend work, the employer will be required to pay special leave for this period.

This position may change if the World Health Organisation declares a global health emergency, and updates the recommendation to all those who have returned from China being required to self-isolate. In the event this occurs, employers should consider taking the same approach as those who are returning specifically from Wuhan or the Hubei province. That is, the leave should be treated as paid personal leave (or unpaid if other leave accruals have been exhausted).

Working from home while in self-isolation period

Where possible, employees returning from China could be provided the resources needed to work from home during the 14-day isolation period. This would be an ideal situation if they are not symptomatic and you’re requesting them to stay away from work only as an extra precaution. If working from home, then employee should be paid their ordinary wages and not be required to take leave.

Other considerations

It’s important to communicate instructions to employees around the required absences, medical clearances or work from home arrangements in a way that clearly states the reasons. If not communicated well, the employer may expose themselves to a direct discrimination claim. In any case, ensuring clear communication with those employees directly affected, as well as your broader workforce will demonstrate that you as the employer are taking the necessary precautions and considering the safety of all employees.

As the coronavirus situation changes from day to day, we are suggesting employers, especially those with employees travelling overseas, should remain vigilant about keeping up to date with the most recent updates. If you need assistance with managing absences, working from home requirements, determining the correct leave type or other advice on managing the risks posed by Coronavirus in your workplace, get in touch with our team.