Your Covid-19 questions answered: Working under the lockdown

By Glen Scanlon

At such an unfathomable time there are a lot of important questions. We’re here to help you find the answers, so you can feel less stressed and make good decisions.

Lambton Quay, Wellington on the morning of 26 March, on the first day of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.

Essential workers in Wellington Central on the first morning of the lockdown Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Let’s get started helping some people with some work-related questions…

My friend has started working in a hotel which is to be used to quarantine up to 200 people returning to New Zealand. He also has an 18-week pregnant wife and doesn’t want to risk making her sick. What obligations is he under to continue to work in that environment? What must the company do to ensure compliance with the Health and Safety and Employment Relations Acts?

Employment law advocate Ashleigh Fechney said the circumstances were so unique everyone was still trying to work out the best ways to apply the law. But if the business was open, there was an obligation to keep working. The employee could talk to their employer about taking annual or unpaid leave.

She said the business needed to ensure it was taking the necessary precautions to provide staff with a safe working environment which minimised the risk of infection. This included safety gear like face masks, screens, gloves, handwash and regular cleaning – effectively, anything they could get their hands on.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP – don’t show up at a medical centre

I’m an essential worker but I am worried about catching Covid-19 off my work colleagues, can I quit and go straight on the dole?

Work and Income says if “you’ve left your job without a good reason or have been fired for misconduct, you may still need to wait up to 13 weeks before your payments start”.

If you are eligible for a benefit between 23 March 23 and 23 November, the government has removed the 1-2 week stand-down period.

Fechney said being concerned about the health and safety impact of Covid-19 would likely be reason enough to ensure someone was not waiting the 13 weeks. However, it might be worth an employee getting a lawyer’s letter to support their Work and Income application.

Can work force me on annual leave?

Fechney says absolutely not. Annual leave has to be taken by agreement. She said some contracts may contain clauses which say people can be asked to go on leave if they have large balances, but this also has to be done with reasonable warning and some discussion.

Employment law specialist Simon Martin said it was true an employer could not unilaterally direct or force an employee to take annual holidays in New Zealand. The parties must first attempt in good faith to agree on when the holidays were taken.

“However, if the parties cannot agree, the employer does then have the right to direct the employee to take annual holidays on at least 14 days’ notice.”

What happens to businesses that break lockdown rules?

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has said anyone who violates the rules will be shut down immediately, while police have said serious offenders will be prosecuted.

Got a question? To get in touch with Glen, email him at [email protected]

Source: Your Covid-19 questions answered: Working under the lockdown

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