Business guide to COVID-19

What does the ban on overseas travel mean for your employees?

There is currently a “level 4” ban on overseas travel for Australian residents. This means residents are actively discouraged from leaving Australia – the official advice is do not travel anywhere overseas. Residents will not receive consular assistance if they do travel, but are not actually prohibited from travelling.

Last updated 19 March 2020

For employers, this has two main implications:

1. How do you deal with employees who have pre-approved leave and now want to cancel it?

2. What do you tell employees who are determined to go ahead with their overseas travel?

What if employees want to cancel their leave requests?

If you know an employee had intended to use their leave application to travel overseas, you should do everything reasonably possible to allow the employee to cancel the application. It is in everyone’s best interests that employees remain in Australia at present. If it means bending any in-house rules that apply to dealing with leave applications (e.g. notice period for cancellation), then these are “exceptional circumstances” that justify taking a more flexible approach.

If employees say they want to re-book the same trip at a later date (after bans are lifted), keep a record of the request and consider giving them preference later on in exchange for the personal inconvenience they accepted by doing the right thing now. Remember, many employees will suffer financial losses if they cannot obtain full refunds for prepaid overseas trips.

Consider providing advice to employees that covers the procedure to follow if they wish to cancel leave applications that are already approved.

Problems may arise if an employer has already made some arrangements to cover for employees who were expected to be on leave for several weeks, for example, engaging casual employees or labour hire/agency temporary workers, or other forms of outsourcing work. In such cases, you cannot force your own employees to still take leave. They take precedence over casual employees, and if there is a cost from cancelling the other arrangements, you will have to negotiate with the supplier.

You can consider approaching individual employees to discuss with them whether they would be willing to take at least part of their leave now, and perhaps offer them some form of incentive to do so. But this is a case-by-case approach dependent on the employee’s willingness to help – no force or coercion can be applied.

If you can help the employee to cancel their travel arrangements in any other way, for example, by providing access to resources that will enable them to apply for refunds, be willing to do so.

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What if an employee insists on travelling overseas?

Restrictions on travel are moving rapidly at present, so you need to remain up-to-date with the current situation.

Some employees may insist on going ahead with their travel. Reasons might include: to attend an overseas wedding, to visit a terminally ill relative, or because they were offered a very good deal on the trip due to the downturn in recreational travel.

Currently, anyone who returns to Australia from overseas is required to self-isolate for 14 days regardless of their state of health. This means an extra 14 days added on to the period of leave that the employee will not be able to attend the workplace. If the employee does become ill, a further period off work will be necessary.

If the employee insists on travelling overseas, you need to sort out the following before the employee departs:

1. Point out that government policy and restrictions are progressively becoming tougher and you will have to comply with whatever the situation is at the date of the employee’s return.

2. On present advice, the employee cannot return to work until at least 14 days after returning to Australia. Discuss how the 14 days will be handled. Can the employee work from home in isolation, or will they have to take the quarantine period as extra paid or unpaid leave? What if the “stay away” period becomes longer than 14 days? What pay arrangements will apply?

3. Make it clear that the employee is travelling at their own risk.

A final thought

This is a time when many employees will be feeling very anxious about what is unfolding. Many will be fearful of their job security, given predictions of a recession and increased unemployment levels. Keeping them well-informed and treating them with dignity and compassion when issues such as leave applications arise has seldom, if ever, been more important.

 

Preparing your employees for remote working, leave from the workplace or temporary business closure? To protect your business and people we have a range of support documents for your business.

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