COVID-19 (Coronavirus): protecting your employees

13 February 2020

More than 20,000 cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus) have been confirmed worldwide and while there are presently only 13 Australian confirmed cases, it is important to be aware of the symptoms and how you can support employees impacted in the workplace.

Please note: For current information and resources please visit our COVID-19 (Coronavirus) resources for business page

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is a virus that can cause respiratory illnesses. Symptoms of the virus can range from mild illness to pneumonia. Affected people may experience:

  • fever
  • flu-like symptoms such as coughing, sore throat and headaches, and
  • difficulty breathing.

Stopping the spread of the COVID-19

On 30 January 2020, the Australian Government updated its advice to Australians about the COVID-19. The advice is based on the latest medical advice from the Australian government’s Department of Health website:

  • People who have been in contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases must be isolated in their home for 14 days after exposure; and
  • Returned travellers who have been in Hubei Province of China must be isolated in their home for 14 days after leaving Hubei Province other than for seeking individual medical care.

What do I tell my employees?

If an employee tells you they:

  • are feeling unwell and may be suffering symptoms of COVID-19, or
  • have been in contact with someone who has or may have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19, or
  • have travelled to an area affected by COVID-19 (such as Hubei province in China) they should be directed to follow the above Australian government advice and seek medical attention immediately.

Payment and leave

The health and safety of employees and those they come into contact with must be an employer’s top priority. This should dictate the approach any employer takes to responding to notification from employees that they may have come into contact with COVID-19.

If an employee informs you they may have contracted COVID-19, or have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, they may use the following accrued entitlements:

  • Personal/carer’s (sick) leave: This leave is available for use where an employee is not fit for work. Employers can ask for a medical certificate certifying an employee’s absence from work due to illness or injury if required by the employer.
  • Employees will be unfit for work in circumstances where they should be isolated from others in accordance with the Australian government advice outlined above.
  • Annual leave/long service leave: This can be used by employees who do not have enough personal/carer’s leave, where they have accrued the relevant entitlement. Employees requesting to take this form of leave should be permitted to do so, unless refusing to grant the leave is reasonable in the circumstances.
  • Directing employees not to attend work: If you have a reasonable suspicion an employee may be exhibiting signs of COVID-19 then you may direct an employee to leave work or not attend the workplace and attend a medical professional for assessment.
  • However, in this event, the employer should pay for the employee to see the doctor as well as for their time away from the workplace if the employee does not agree to take paid leave. The employer will be responsible for paying the employee until such time as medical confirmation is obtained that the employee is unfit for work. Once an employee is certified as unfit, then the employee can be required to take a form of leave (whether paid or unpaid).

Returning to work

If an employee does report to you that they have, or believe they have, been exposed to COVID-19, we strongly recommend that, before permitting the employee to return to work, you obtain a medical certificate from that employee certifying they are fit to return to work.

For further information and assistance on any aspect of your employment obligations, please call the Victorian Chamber Workplace Relations Advice Line on (03) 8662 5222.

This article first appeared in HR Advance.


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