Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Bird flu employment issues

An article in Scoop (New Zealand) raises interesting pandemic-related employment law issues. Does an employer have the ability to require employees to stay home? Can an employee refuse to attend work? When is an employer obliged to pay in these circumstances?
Workplaces could be completely disrupted by absences, which the Ministry of Health estimate could reach 50% of staff if and when the pandemic is at its height.

"While many have taken the blasé approach to the "bird flu", putting it in the "the sky is falling" category with Y2K and SARS, the potentially devastating effects of a pandemic in an employment setting cannot be ignored. Regardless of the severity of the pandemic, if it hits, employers will face a number of issues which at the very least could give rise to personal grievances, and at the worst could destroy "the workplace' as we know it", [employment law specialist Scott] Wilson said.
The incentives to force workers to come to work in circumstances where there is severe short staffing may run up against a prudent policy that workers who aren't feeling well or have sick family members should stay home. And what will happen to benefits plans when half the labor force is on sick leave? Will employers be required to provide protective equipment like face masks, gloves, hand antiseptics? If a business closes down during a pandemic, what will happen to existing labor agreements?

These are questions over and above the obvious ones of how the business will manage to keep functioning, during and after a pandemic. Should a pandemic happen, there are going to be a lot of unexpected consequences.