Business guide to Coronavirus

How to handle a potential coronavirus case at work

As Australia battles to contain the spread of COVID-19, working from home has become the new normal for many of the nation’s businesses. For some, however, remote working is not a viable option. If you operate a business that’s been classified as an essential service, such as a grocery store, you may have no choice but to keep employees on site to remain operational.

So, what should you do if you suspect an employee has had close contact with a confirmed case or even tested positive themselves? These are the guidelines you should follow.

What it means to be a ‘close contact’

Person-to-person spread of COVID-19 typically occurs between close contacts. In this context, a ‘close contact’ is someone who has spent more than 15 minutes face-to-face or at least two hours in the same closed space as an infected person, including in the 24 hours before their symptoms appeared.

If you know or suspect one of your employees fits this description, you must ensure they adhere to directions of the Department of Health and quarantine for 14 days from when they were last exposed. If they learn of their exposure while at work, make sure they leave immediately and use personal rather than public transport to get home.

While in quarantine, there are various protocols they should follow to avoid spreading the infection to others. This includes staying at home, except for seeking medical care, and keeping away from other members of the household as much as possible. You can refer them to the government’s self-isolation fact sheet for more information.

Safeguarding other staff members

To maintain trust, you should tell the rest of your staff what’s going on and be ready to answer their questions. They’re more likely to be comfortable if you’re upfront about the situation and can reassure them.

This is also a good opportunity to reinforce social distancing and hygiene practices. Remind employees to wash their hands regularly with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitiser, and regularly clean high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches, phones and taps.

On this note, it can be a good idea to consider the key areas where the affected employee most recently spent time, in case they do go on to develop the disease. This will obviously vary depending on the nature of their work. For instance, in the case of a cafe barista, you’ll want to disinfect the coffee station as well as the machine and accessories. If the employee is a delivery driver, focus your efforts on the driver’s cab and any areas where they crossed over with other employees.

Pay and leave entitlements 

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, when an employee cannot work because they’ve been required to self-isolate, their employer is not obliged to pay them unless they use leave entitlements, such as annual leave or sick leave, if they develop COVID-19

That said, given the unprecedented circumstances, employers are encouraged to work with their employees to find a mutually beneficial solution, particularly if staff have little or no leave available, as is typically the case with casual employees.

Employers should also consider whether their obligations are impacted by any applicable enterprise agreement, award, employees’ employment contracts or workplace policies, which may be more generous. It’s also worth keeping on top of the latest government measures to support businesses impacted by the coronavirus, such as the new JobKeeper wage subsidy.

Monitoring signs and symptoms

While your employee is in self-isolation it’s vital they monitor their health and notify you if they develop any symptoms. Keep in contact with them and make sure they’re aware of what to look out for a fever, dry cough, sore throat, fatigue and shortness of breath.

Provided they remain symptom-free for their entire isolation period, they can return to work. If your employee tests positive, however, they’ll need to continue to comply with self-isolation restrictions until they have medical clearance. 

Repercussions of a positive test result

Of course, if your employee does test positive for COVID-19, there are further measures you will need to take, particularly if they have been in the workplace in the 24 hours before developing symptoms.

As was the case with the recent diagnosis of two staff members at a Coles store in Victoria, this won’t necessarily mean you have to shut up shop. But you will need to work closely with health authorities, conduct extensive cleaning and assist with contact tracing. This includes instructing team members who are close contacts to self-isolate and seek medical treatment if symptoms arise.  

Regardless of your individual circumstances, given the infectious nature of this disease, it’s best for your staff, the wider community and the reputation of your business if you err on the side of caution. 

To learn more about how to prepare your business for the impact of COVID-19, visit our free resource centre.

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