Australia: COVID-19 – returning to work and the 'new normal'

By Kristy Peacock-Smith, Jessica McDonald

05-2020

Further to our previous article about changes to Australia's employment laws as a result of COVID-19, the current status in Australia has shifted significantly. There are now 7,079 confirmed cases in Australia, with 13 new cases reported in the past 24 hours. Several states and territories have recorded zero new cases for a number of days and the curve has well and truly flattened.

As a result, the Australian Government has recently announced its 3-step plan for the easing of restrictions in Australia and the focus for many employers has now shifted to planning for the 'new normal' as we return to the workplace.

3-step plan

The 3-step plan provides Australia's road map for the progressive easing of restrictions. The specific extent and timing of lifting restrictions is being determined by each of the states and territories. Broadly speaking however, working from home is still recommended during steps 1 & 2, with a plan for a physical return to work in step 3. While there is no set timing as yet, the government is hopeful that Australia will reach step 3 in July.

COVID-safe workplaces

As part of the government's return to work plan, it has issued 10 National COVID-19 Safe Work Principles (Principles) to guide businesses in managing their workplaces in the return to work. Notably, the Principles confirm that:

  • Businesses must, in consultation with their workers, assess the way they work to identify, understand and quantify risk and to implement and review control measures to address those risks; and
  • As restrictions gradually begin to lift, businesses and workers must work together to adapt and promote safe work practices consistent with advice from health authorities.

In accordance with these Principles, Safe Work Australia has made a number of significant changes to its website to include comprehensive industry-specific information for managing COVID-19 in the workplace. These changes provide employers with a complete toolkit for managing the return to a COVID-safe workplace.

Considerations for employers

Whilst the current guidance is that employees should continue to work from home where possible, there is no prohibition on returning to work during steps 1 & 2 (except in Victoria).

In planning for the return to work employers should consider:

  • the logistics of employees returning– can you split employees into teams or stagger start/finish and break times? Consider WHS obligation in respect of first aiders and fire wardens?;
  • managing physical distancing requirements in the office particularly around workspaces, meeting rooms and communal areas;
  • implementation of strict hygiene measures and cleaning protocols;
  • how you will respond to a case of COVID-19 in the workplace; and
  • managing employees who may be unable to return to work in the early days such as vulnerable employees or those with carers' responsibilities.