Managing people

HR and employment challenges in 2021

It’s fair to say many people are glad to see the back of 2020 but a number of challenges faced by businesses will still trickle into this year. Let’s take a look at what this may mean for your business in 2021.

COVID-19 vaccine 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced the COVID-19 vaccine will be rolled out from February with essential healthcare workers and the elderly first in line to get the jab followed by the rest of country in the months to follow.

It’s not unusual for workplaces to offer flu vaccinations to employees but often this is optional. With the threat of COVID-19 posing a greater risk to the community than the common flu, you will need to make some hard decisions and formulate new policies.

Ask yourself: 

  • To ensure a safe workplace, should it be compulsory for employees to be vaccinated?
  • If there’s an out of pocket cost, who should pick up the bill?
  • What if employees refuse to be vaccinated?
  • What other COVID-safe practices need to be implemented?

Proposed changes to the Fair Work Act 2009

The Federal Government announced various proposed changes to the Fair Work Act 2009 and while they may not make it through Parliament, you should assess what these could mean for your business.

Here’s a summary of the proposed changes:

  • Part-time employees in the Accommodation, Food and Retail industries will be guaranteed a minimum 16 hours per week, but if they do extra shifts they will not receive overtime pay.
  • Casual employees who work regular shifts for at least 12 months will gain a right to apply to become permanent employment (some businesses already have something similar). However, the Fair Work Commission will not be able to force employers to make them permanent. If you use casual employees you will need to plan with this in mind.
  • The Federal Government is again attempting to reverse some recent decisions that long-term casual employees were entitled to payments for leave as well as their casual loading. To do so, it proposes changing the definition of a “casual employee”. 
  • As part of an attempt to revive enterprise bargaining, employers may be able to by-pass the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT) for enterprise agreements for up to two years if they can prove there are circumstances adversely affecting their business (including COVID-19-related impacts) and employees agree to the proposal.
  • Increased penalties for deliberate underpayment of wages. 

One definite change is that the Fair Work Commission will be reviewing pay rates in the awards covering the Club, Retail, Restaurant and Hospitality industries. The aim is to examine the feasibility of trading off penalty rates in exchange for higher base pay rates.


At this stage, the government intends to end the JobKeeper assistance scheme on 28 March 2021. This means businesses will be expected to return employees to their pre-COVID-19 arrangements. It’s important to plan and evaluate how you’ll achieve this and keep the communication channels open with employees. 

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Other challenges 

Ongoing HR and employment challenges that may also require your attention this year: 

With many workplaces switching to working remotely, it’s likely employees will put pressure on you to maintain flexible work options. Giving staff the option to split their time between working from the office and working from home may be a suitable compromise.  

The “gig economy” which includes businesses such as Airtasker, Uber, Uber Eats and Deliveroo, may come under the spotlight to enforce workers’ rights. Attempts to regulate employment so workers are fairly remunerated and stamp out any possible cost cutting measures by operating outside the law are key concerns. These have the potential to impact businesses that compete with “gig economy” businesses.

Equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion will present ongoing issues regardless of the economic climate. Businesses that step up may receive free positive PR on social media while those that make poor decisions may be shamed and in doing so negatively impact the bottom line. 

Mike Toten


Mike is an HR consultant who specialises in research and writing about HR best practices, industrial relations, equal employment opportunity and related areas. He is a regular contributor and is also a media commentator on HR issues.

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