Keeping your COVID-19 policies up to date – what should you be looking out for?

In 2020 and 2021, businesses were forced into a reactive approach to COVID-19, having to quickly implement work from home processes, putting together COVID-19 safety plans and assessing COVID-19 vaccination strategies and policies in quick succession.

Whilst businesses likely feel better equipped to deal with COVID-19 challenges in their workplaces after all this activity, the circumstances relating to how quickly the pandemic is changing and evolving may mean that some of your workplace resources and policies are already out of date. The team at ER Strategies has compiled a list of policies and procedures employers may need to review in early 2022, to ensure the current circumstances of the pandemic are reflected in your organisation’s HR related documentation. Where relevant, we have included some key areas or considerations that may possibly be outdated in your current policies or procedures, to help get you started.

Covid-19 Vaccination Policies

COVID-19 Vaccination policies will likely form part of most company’s HR policy suites for years to come.

As Public Health Orders have shifted, such as ATAGI making changes to the definition of what constitutes ‘fully vaccinated’, it is important that employers regularly review their policies and update any applicable wording to continue to reflect the most up-to-date government information and company-specific guidelines.

Policies that included key dates or provided an outdated list of TGA approved vaccines should be reviewed and updated as appropriate.

Whilst most policies were drafted with existing employees in mind, organisations should move to providing guidance around vaccination requirements for new hires. Whilst vaccine status is not a protected attribute under Discrimination legislation, certain attributes preventing an employee being vaccinated may be, so companies should provide clear guidance on vaccination expectations for new hires under their existing policies.

Evidence requirements/leave for covid

As we continue to live with Omicron, it has become increasingly apparent that employers and employees may become exposed to and/or infected with COVID-19. As governments move away from contact tracing and PCR testing, employers need to consider what evidence they would find suitable to confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis for the purpose of approved paid or unpaid leave entitlements. Not only is evidence required for leave entitlements, but it is also important to ensure employees have completed a full period of isolation before returning to work.

Paid sick leave and personal/carers leave

Full-time and part-time employees may be able to take sick and carer’s leave if they have COVID-19 or need to care for immediate family or household members who are infected with COVID-19, if the employee can satisfy required evidence requirements. Casual employees who are required to isolated under a Health Order can be granted periods of approved unpaid leave, for the duration of their isolation period.

What may be considered reasonable evidence?

Employers can ask for ‘reasonable evidence’ to clarify if the employee has COVID-19 or is affected by a close contact of COVID. Reasonable evidence could range from a picture of a positive rapid antigen test with the employee or a form of ID also in the photo, to text messages from a public health official to clarify whether they are a close contact, awaiting test results, or a positive test result for COVID. In relevant states/territories, individuals can register their positive RAT tests to be confirmed as a COVID case and will receive instructions to isolate, which could be presented to an employers as a sufficient form of evidence.

Reasonable evidence can differ from workplace to workplace. Employers should consider updating any applicable leave policies to clearly outline what types of evidence would be required by the company in order to satisfy paid personal/carer’s leave entitlements. Employers should then consistently apply this policy to all staff who are unable to work for a period due to COVID-19. If employees cannot satisfy the evidence requirements, employers should reach out for expert advice before taking any action.

COVID-19 Safety plans / WHS policies

As workers in most industries head back to work, employers should review any required COVID-19 Safety plans or WHS policies and procedures to ensure they are up to date with applicable safety guidelines.

Employers may wish to review the role of Rapid Antigen Testing in the workplace in line with their safety obligations and incorporate any changing terms into relevant policies and procedures.

With more employees back at work, and more COVID-19 cases circulating in the community, it is also a reasonable time for employers to review their obligations relating to reporting incidences of COVID-19 related to the workplace, to the relevant Safe Work body for each state/territory. It is likely employers may see their workplaces exposed to COVID-19 for the first time, and ensuring suitable persons are equipped with up-to-date reporting guidelines is essential to meeting your obligations.

Work from home

Working from home (‘WFH’) is no longer a government direction in most states, meaning employers may be having employees return to work for the first time in a long time. Employers should ensure they are adequately consulting with staff around a return to work, and reassuring staff of the measures in place to help support a safe return.

With WFH now at the discretion of the employer, employers should consider the implementation of a robust ‘Work From Home’ policy outlining the company’s position, application and eligibility requirements regarding a discretionary work-from-home model or flexible work model. Many staff may not be well-versed in an employer’s ability to direct them back to the workplace and may consider that working from home is a new entitlement that does not require employer approval.

Employers should continue to assess the benefits of WFH, and implement a policy and strategy that supports positive business outcomes together with employee wellbeing. Having clear eligibility criteria, and guidelines about company expectations if and when an employee is working from home, will ensure that these practices are both equitable to staff and beneficial to the business.

The company may have multiple Work From Home policies, outlining the key differences between government directed and company-discretion based models and how the two interact.

Policies and Procedures

Clients of ER Strategies can find a host of useful policies and procedures on our Online HR document library to assist them with the items discussed above. Whilst ER Strategies will continue to monitor relevant information for employers related to COVID-19, employers should review their own specific situation. Clients of ER Strategies can contact the team on 1300 55 66 37 during business hours Monday-Friday (AEDT) for detailed advice relating to the above.

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