Impact of Quarantine Free Travel on Business

ConsultingHQ has recently received enquiries from clients about how the new quarantine-free travel affects their business and employees. The details below are correct as of 12 May 2021.

Quarantine-free travel

New Zealand Citizens may now travel to all Australian states and territories and the Cook Islands (from 17 May) without having to go into a managed isolation facility on arrival in Australia or the Cook Islands – or on return to New Zealand. All other standard border clearance requirements (health, immigration, biosecurity etc.) still apply.

Border requirements and travel arrangements can change at short notice

Since implementing the quarantine-free travel arrangements with Australia on 18 April there have already been hiccups, with travel paused for several days while outbreaks have been investigated and contained. Therefore, given the contagious nature of the COVID-19 virus, border requirements and travel arrangements can change at short notice. Australian states and territories can have different entry requirements and rules, so travellers should check the conditions and requirements in each state that they intend to visit prior to booking and travelling.

Get the latest NZ health advice at the Unite Against Covid-19 website

For any international travel, even between NZ and Australia, travellers should check the latest Government guidance and register their details with the NZ Foreign Affairs and Trade Safe Travel website so they can receive up-to-date travel advice.

Travel insurance: International travellers should ensure they are covered by comprehensive travel insurance and that they have a good understanding of what their policy covers.

Asking about employee International travel plans

An employer is entitled to ask employees if they are planning to travel to Australia, the Cook Islands, or any other international destination during annual leave – however, employees are not legally required to tell you. The law recognises that employees have a right to privacy, and to not have the reason they are requesting leave prejudice the granting of leave.

There is some risk to a business if an employee travels to Australia or to the Cook Islands, and border regulations change due to an outbreak of Covid-19 resulting in the employee is potentially being away from work longer than intended.

Therefore, because of this, it is reasonable for an employer to ask their employees if they are planning to travel to Australia or other quarantine-free locations, and it is reasonable for employees to confirm whether they are or are not.

Can an employer decline a request for leave on the basis they intend travelling to a quarantine-free location?

Our view is that an employer could not do that. As the NZ Government has opened quarantine travel it is perfectly legitimate for a person to travel to Australia or to the Cook Islands and technically, they are no different to an employee who requests leave to travel within NZ (or to stay at home for that matter).

For an employer to decline a request for leave to travel to Australia or the Cook Islands, the employer would need to demonstrate that they were in a high-risk workplace where employees were in close contact with other people, or that the workplace cared for vulnerable people.

Of course, as per normal circumstances an employer can decline a request for leave if it does not suit the needs of the business or if the employee does not have enough annual leave entitlement available.

If you are concerned about business continuity and the potential for an employee to get caught in Australia or the Cook Islands due to a lockdown or that they might have to go into managed isolation on return, you can limit the amount of leave that you approve in any given period.

Contingency planning for employees who travel to quarantine-free locations for their leave

It does make sense to prepare a contingency plan to manage the risk of your employee(s) getting stuck in Australia or the Cook Islands or going into managed isolation for 14 days – the best outcome would be if you did not need to use it! At this early stage in the quarantine-free arrangements we do not know what impact there would be on these arrangements if there was a serious Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown in a country an employee was visiting.

Any policies you develop should be broad and general, so your people are aware that the business intends to closely monitor and manage the situation, and to support people as far as practicable if the worst occurred and they had to stay in Australia or the Cook Islands or complete a period of managed isolation on return.

As always, any impacts on an individual’s employment should be addressed on a case-by-case basis with that employee and the outcome would depend on their individual circumstances.

Team Communication about quarantine free travel is essential.

If you have concerns about your employees travelling to quarantine-free countries for their leave it is recommended that you talk to them about this. New Zealand Citizens often have close family and friends in Australia and the Cook Islands and it is expected there will be a lot of travel between the countries involved.

You should talk to them about the potential worst-case scenarios and what plans you have put in place, and if there would be any company support available for employees if stranded or having to undertake managed isolation.

If in the case of changes to quarantine-free travel, discuss with them what the employee might do if they had to take extended time away from work or perform their role (or some of it) remotely.

These are the sorts of things you could cover:

  • Whether the person is able (and willing) to work remotely if they are unable to return to work as intended.
  • How much of their role could be done remotely.
  • Whether they have the resources to do so (devices, equipment, internet connection etc).
  • The hours and schedule they might work.
  • How any period of absence or hours not worked will be treated, i.e., paid leave or leave without pay.

Paying people absent due to border closers

If an employee is either unable to return to New Zealand from Australia or the Cook Islands or must complete a period of managed isolation, and they can work remotely, you should pay them as usual.

If they can do some but not all their work, pay them for the work they can do and agree on an alternative arrangement for them for the rest of their time.

This might be:

  • alternative duties that they can do remotely.
  • a period of unpaid or paid leave.
  • a period of annual leave.

If they cannot do any remote work, discuss how a period of extended absence will be treated, as either paid or unpaid leave.

If away for an extended period, you may need to consider how long you can reasonably keep the employee’s job open for them and how long it may take for them to return to work. If the period of absence extends unreasonably, you must consult with the person about their ongoing employment.

If the employee needs to complete managed isolation on their return to New Zealand, and cannot work remotely, there is a good argument that they are not able to work and therefore not entitled to be paid.

Health and safety consideration for employees absent due to border restrictions

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 requires all employers to ensure the health and safety of their employees and others who come to the workplace. This includes ensuring that staff or customers are not put at risk by an employee returning to work without completing the isolation requirements that may be stipulated by the Ministry of Health.

Employers may require that an employee stay away from work until Ministry of Health guidelines have been met.

Please get in touch if you have a question that we have not covered here.

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