“In the COVID-19 recovery phase, meeting workplace health and safety requirements will obviously require some unconventional thinking and practices, whether it’s in relation to maintaining good distancing or implementing appropriate cleaning and hygiene regimes,” Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter said.
In NSW, a public health order issued last week continues to direct employers to permit employees to work from home where possible.
Mark Morey, secretary of Unions NSW, said staggered start times, split teams and “aggressive” sanitation efforts were critical for office workers.
“Hot desks are a smorgasbord of bacteria and should not survive this pandemic,” he said. “Coronavirus lives on surfaces, as do many other germs. Workers really do need a space of their own.”
Liam O’Brien, the assistant secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said businesses should also supply personal protective equipment and paid pandemic leave for workers to identify exposure early and to self-isolate until tested or free from the virus.
“Hot desking is dead,” he said.
The federal government announced an $80 million infection control training program on Saturday for staff in customer-facing roles. Nationally recognised skills certification will be available to about 80,000 workers across retail, food handling, as well as transport and logistics. Workers will pay no fee or a small fee for training previously only widely available in the health sector.
Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business Michaelia Cash said the “urgent” initiative would inspire confidence in customers and pave the way for a “strong and rapid economic recovery”.
An employee who refuses to return to work because of the coronavirus might be required to use their leave entitlements and then take unpaid leave, Joellen Riley Munton, a professor of law at the University of Technology Sydney.
She also said absence for illness or injury that exceeded three months could justify termination.
“As harsh as it may seem, employers do not have to keep people on the books indefinitely because it is an inherent requirement of any job that the employee should do the job.”
Pan Sander Myint will return to her office in Sydney’s CBD after working from her home in Yagoona since March.
Ms Myint’s office is on the eighth floor of a building in which hundreds of people work and is accessed by a lift that is “always full”. The office shares a kitchen with other businesses and items such as a grill and refrigerator are used by at least 20 people.
“Sometimes the worst thing is people who leave their lunch box for days and we have to clean it,” she said.
Ms Myint said she was concerned about how social distancing would be maintained in the workplace, especially when dealing with clients.
Ms Myint also expressed concern about the safety of her commute to Wynyard station, which she said was often crowded.
Ms Kidd said employers should consider how to identify people who had had contact with someone with COVID-19, however, Professor Riley Munton said employers faced criminal penalties under privacy laws passed by the federal parliament last week if they required an employee to use the COVIDSafe app.
“Obviously the government’s concern to assuage people’s fears about misuse of the app have overridden one measure that employer’s might, in my view, reasonably take if they are serious about their health and safety risks,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Safe Work Australia said the risks arising from exposure to COVID-19 was a foreseeable risk in all workplaces.
“Employers have a duty to eliminate or minimise so far as is reasonably practicable, the risks arising from exposure to COVID-19,” she said. “Physical distancing in combination with good hygiene and cleaning practices are effective ways to reduce the likelihood of exposure to COVID-19.”
with Mike Foley
Andrew Taylor is a Senior Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.