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The COVID-19 journey so far – Australia

29 May 2020
The story so far for Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic and what returning to the workplace in the post-lockdown environment may look like.
The demands placed on employers in Australia in March and April 2020 were extraordinary and this was reflected in the areas we were asked to assist them with. Initially, employers sought advice about their ability to stand down employees under the Fair Work Act 2009 due to lack of work or Government restrictions on the operation of their business. Focus then turned to how employees should be paid in the event they returned  from overseas and had to quarantine for 14 days. Instructions were also received about whether employers could require employees to take paid  leave and how reductions in working hours should be dealt with.  The passing of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Act 2020 was a watershed moment in Australian Industrial Law because it introduced wage subsidies of $1,500 per fortnight for eligible employees and also enabled employers to reduce employees' working hours, provided certain conditions were met. We have advised employers on the implementation of the Act in the last few weeks.

 From lockdown to return to work

In terms of returning  to the workplace, the Federal Government released a 3-Step Framework on 8 May 2020, which included a return to the workplace in Step 3. However, each of the States and Territories is ultimately responsible for controlling if and when workers will be able to return to their workplaces. As at 27 May 2020, there is no current home confinement direction in Western Australia, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, or the Northern Territory, although most are still encouraging employees to work from home. Alternatively, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania, are still preventing employees from returning to work to varying degrees, the overriding principle being that employees cannot return to work unless their work cannot reasonably be performed at home. If and when workers are permitted to return to their workplace, employers should ensure that they conduct a risk assessment to identify all reasonably foreseeable hazards and associated risks, and determine if and what control measures can be implemented to control the risk of COVID-19 and associated risks. To assist employers with this task, Safe Work Australia has published a range of useful information on its website. While performing this task, employers should also ensure that they consider the individual circumstances of any vulnerable workers, and review their risk assessment periodically as circumstances continue to change.

Further Reading

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