On 24 April 2020 and with a shift to Alert Level 3, the Government has announced that the COVID-19 Essential Workers Leave Support Scheme has been extended to cover “non-essential” workers who are over 70 or otherwise considered “higher risk” from COVID-19. The change took effect from 1 May 2020. This means that all non-essential businesses may, from 1 May, make an application for leave payments for their employees.
The previous Leave Support Scheme
The previous scheme covered essential businesses only whose employees were required to stay away from work because of the Ministry of Health guidelines and because the employees were unable to work from home.
Changes from 1 May 2020
Following New Zealand’s move to Alert Level 3 from midnight on Monday the 27 April, the COVID-19 Leave Support Scheme has been extended to cover all businesses, organisations and self-employed persons who are at higher risk from COVID-19. The effect of the expansion is that the Scheme is no longer restricted to “essential businesses” and instead aims to provide support to all workers who are deemed to be at higher risk from the pandemic.
In summary, Alert Level 3 allows most business to resume work and for employees who are unable to work from home to return to work in accordance with the Health and Safety Guidelines. However, where those employees are unable to return to work because they have underlying health conditions that put them “at risk”, the newly extended Leave Payment will provide support at weekly rates of $585.80 for those working full-time and $350.00 for those working part-time hours. The new Leave Support payment will cover four weeks per employee, starting from the date the application is made. If an employer needs to apply for their employee again after the four weeks finish, they can do this in the fourth week.
Who may qualify for COVID-19 Leave Payments?
The Employment New Zealand website sets out a comprehensive eligibility criteria which must be met to qualify for Leave Support payments. In summary, employers can apply for support for workers who are considered “at risk” because they:
- Are sick with COVID-19 and are required to self-isolate until advised by a health professional that they are well enough to leave self-isolation;
- Are in self-isolation due to having close contact with a COVID-19 infected person;
- Have dependents who are either infected with COVID-19 or are self-isolating as a close contact (for example, young children); or
- Have underlying serious health conditions themselves, or in their household, which puts them “at higher risk” of becoming severely ill from COVID-19 and who agree with their employer that they will not return to work for a specified period of time.
Note: The purpose of this last criterion is for the worker to remain at home to reduce the risk to them, if they are at a higher risk, or any person in their household who is at a higher risk.
A list of relevant health conditions can be found here, although it is not an exhaustive list and employees may be at risk even if they do not have one of the listed conditions.
Under the Ministry of Health Guidelines, a worker will be “at higher risk” if they have chronic health conditions, are vulnerable due to their age or disability, or have underlying medical conditions that make them more prone to catching COVID-19.
As a business, it is important that you take steps with your employees to confirm their “at risk” status (for example, requiring medical proof from a doctor or a health board regarding any self isolation requirements).
As was the case before, an employer cannot obtain both the wage subsidy and the leave payment at the same time.
The business will also have to show that it meets the eligibility criteria for the Leave Support scheme. The criteria are:
- The business has either experienced a 30% decline in actual or predicted revenue because of the COVID-19 outbreak, or has had its ability to support the employees named in the application negatively affected by the COVID-19 public health restrictions;
- The business’ employees are legally employed by the business in New Zealand and cannot work for one of the reasons listed above; and
- The business is not currently receiving any other government funding to cover any of the situations in this Leave Support scheme for any of the named employees.
In applying for the Leave Support scheme, the employer takes on various obligations. These obligations are listed here.
What should employers do with at-risk persons?
As a first step, if possible, people who are at-risk should continue to work from home, just like they have been doing under Level 4.
If working from home is not possible, an employer and their at-risk employee should discuss what safety measures to implement to enable the employee to return to work in the workplace. These measures could include:
- ensuring social distancing in the workplace by spacing out shifts and meal breaks so that fewer employees are in the workplace at one time, or increasing physical distancing in another way;
- providing the employee with adequate PPE to work hygienically;
- undertaking duties which need lower levels of customer interaction (such as working from the office, rather than the frontline).
If these safety measures are not sufficient, an employer and their at-risk employee should agree on the basis on which the employee will stay at home until it is safe to go into work. Points to discuss include whether the employee’s time at home will be paid or unpaid, and whether they will use their entitlement to annual leave under the Holidays Act 2003, or not.
If your business and your employees are eligible, consider applying for the Leave Support payments.
For more information, or if you are looking for advice on your entitlements under the expanded Leave Support Scheme, please contact Jim Roberts, Lydia Sharpe or Victoria Bortsova, or your usual contact at Hesketh Henry.
The information contained in this article is current at the date of publishing and is of a general nature. It should be used as a guide only and not as a substitute for obtaining legal advice. Specific legal advice should be sought where required.