There have been brawls over toilet paper in our supermarkets. There have been crowds of people thumbing their noses at public health directives on our beaches. But the COVID-19 award for most difficult viewing surely belongs to the extraordinary welfare queues snaking around Centrelink buildings across the country.
Experts predict that up to 1 million additional Australians could find themselves unemployed as a result of this pandemic. Businesses being forced to close, either because of a lack of trade or government directives, is the primary reason why so many are now jobless.
And with economically hostile isolation measures required to slow the rate of infection, it stands to reason that there is more trouble to come.
Relief for businesses
Acknowledging the heavy impact the difficult economic conditions are having on many businesses, the Australian Taxation Office has announced a range of support measures to assist businesses through this difficult period. Support measures could include deferral of some payments, quicker access to GST refunds, and options to enter low interest payment plans for existing or future tax debts.
Options available to assist businesses impacted by COVID-19 include:
Additional JobKeeper Allowance
In a further bid to ensure Australians keep their jobs and businesses reopen following the health crisis, the government has announced a $130 billion package to subsidise the pay packets of low- to middle-income earners who are under threat of being stood down due to COVID-19.
The JobKeeper Allowance will see businesses paid up to $1,500 a fortnight for each employee. Workers who have already been stood down will be eligible for the allowance providing they were an employee on March 1 2020.
The package is expected to cover the next six months and payments will apply to both part-time and full-time workers, as well as sole traders and casual workers, if they have been with their employer for 12 months or more.
Employee and Employer Rights
So what are the rights of employers and employees caught in the crosshairs of this workplace catastrophe?
Generally speaking, businesses complying with Federal or State Government directives to close trade, travel, borders or specific industries can lawfully stand-down or lay-off staff, regardless of their employment status. If a business affected by one of these directives can no longer provide work to its employees, then redundancies or other measures may be rightfully implemented.
A business in this situation might choose to speak to permanent employees about standing down for a period without pay or using leave entitlements. Redundancies can only be enacted with proper notice and payment for untaken annual leave.
Casual workers are much more vulnerable to being laid-off without remuneration as they receive an hourly loading in lieu of paid entitlements. Independent contractors are in a similar position, because, apart from some exceptions, they are not considered to be employees.
Government edicts ordering people into quarantine or isolation will also trigger some difficult decisions for businesses, particularly those that cannot offer employees a ‘work from home’ option. In this instance, employers have no obligation to continue to pay employees.
Despite having their operations affected, and perhaps even their trade dampened, there are many businesses that will continue to trade.
One simple example is a restaurant that can no longer serve dine-in customers but has shifted its focus to take away and home delivery. In this instance, work opportunities still exist within the business. So the employer would need to offer permanent staff roles that have emerged as a result of the change in operating procedure.
Encompassing a labyrinth of industry awards, contracts and classifications, Australian Workplace Law is extremely complex. But in these ever-changing, unpredictable and frightening times, correctly navigating its maze of rights, obligations and exemptions might be exceptionally daunting.
Tonkin Drysdale Partners has been an important part of the Central Coast business community for over 60 years. We are truly heartbroken by the current suffering of so many of our community partners and institutions. We are already actively advising and assisting many local businesses during this difficult time. If you have any questions about your workplace rights and obligations, contact Lee Pawlak or Dominic Tonkin from TDP’s Workplace Law team today.