COVID-19 Leave Support & Sick Leave – Is It Enough?

November 19th, 2020 - Barbara Buckett

The resurgence of COVID-19 in the community has prompted many organisations to start questioning the mechanics around sick leave entitlements balanced with the need to protect their workforce.

Employers have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of their workforce and we all have a responsibility to keep our community safe. We are told to stay at home if we are unwell and get tested, which is all well and good if you have sick leave or can be a beneficiary of the Leave Support Scheme.

When COVID-19 first entered the community, the business response was relatively straightforward as there was a blanket lockdown (excluding businesses deemed as an essential service) then elimination.  Now it isn’t so simple and we are becoming cognisant to the fact that we will likely go in and out of regional lockdown and that alert levels will fluctuate.

Currently, people are entitled to 5 days sick leave as a statutory minimum which will increase to 10 days by the end of 2021 under the re-elected Labour government, after six months of service – however this may vary depending on the individual employment agreement or collective agreement.  This can be accrued and rolled over, the conditions by which are usually dependent on the policy of the organisation.  Whilst this increase is positive for employees, there is the concern from small businesses as to how this will be funded, particularly in times as these where funds may be tighter.

There is also the COVID-19 Leave Support Scheme which provides coverage for workers who have been required to self-isolate because they have COVID or because they have been told to self-isolate as a close contact of a case.  It also provides coverage for a small portion of healthcare/essential workers waiting on a test result.     But if you’re a bus driver, work in a store or in a large office, you may not have leave available to take, and will not be eligible for the Leave Support Scheme unless you’ve developed symptoms, gone to a mobile testing station, and are waiting on results. If you are a low income or casual worker, the prospect of losing wages (or future shifts) can be the tipping point as to deciding whether or not to be tested in the first place, let alone stay home without pay.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 Leave Support Scheme needs modification to enable the objective of minimising risk of spread.  It really needs to consider opening the criteria of ‘being tested and waiting for a test result’ beyond healthcare workers.

In the interim, in the event where people run out of sick leave or aren’t eligible for leave, it could be beneficial for management to consider a special paid leave ‘bank’ that can be applied on a case by case basis, or one-off extra sick leave entitlement. Critics of this approach may say that this opens up the system to abuse – however remember that if an employer has reasonable doubt that an employee may be abusing the system, they are within their rights to ask for a medical certificate.

We can assist with advice on how to structure and implement extra leave schemes and writing leave policy and variations, contact us for an obligation free discussion.

Note: BuckettLaw takes no responsibility for the consequences of any actions taken on the basis of our articles. Any views expressed or comments made in an article are the writers option only. The content in our articles does not constitute legal advice. If you need legal or expert advice you should obtain specific advice about your case or matter from a professional. For legal advice based on your individual situation please contact us to speak with one of our expert lawyers.

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Barbara Buckett

Barbara Buckett is a highly experienced senior employment lawyer with over 35 years of practice in New Zealand. She provides expert advice on all areas of employment law and has a proven track record of delivering excellent results for clients. Barbara has extensive experience in resolving workplace issues and is an experienced litigator. In her free time, she enjoys reading, traveling, working out, and fine wine and dining with friends.

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