With weather-related disasters on the increase in New Zealand, it is important to have a plan to support employees during and after natural disasters and emergencies. There are a number of reasons an employee may not be able to work following a disaster or emergency:
- You may not be able provide work.
- You may not be able to provide a suitable and/or safe workplace.
- Employees may not be able to access the workplace (e.g. road closures or evacuations).
- The employee or a dependent may be sick or injured.
- Usual modes of transport may be unavailable.
The Health & Safety at Work Act 2015 requires employers to put the safety and wellbeing of employees before all else. Therefore the first step in an emergency is always to take care of the health and safety of your team, yourself and your customers/clients. If the workplace isn’t safe, you must not permit – let alone require – your staff to work there.
Following a disaster, contact your staff as soon as possible to let them know the situation at work and your expectations of them. Give them updates even if they are not required to be at work so that they know what is going on. Consider using texts and social media where possible to minimise overload of the telecommunications network. Most importantly, make sure you reach out to your staff to make sure they and their families are okay, and to keep up with what is happening for them.
Finally, in relation to health and safety, consider wider infrastructure issues. Road closures, power outages or water restrictions may impact your staff in a number of ways. In an extraordinary event, you may need to approach things differently. This may include letting employees work flexibly or relaxing your mobile phone policy to allow staff to make personal phone calls to check on family during the workday.
NZ employment law does not specifically provide for what is to happen after a natural disaster occurs.
As a rule, we need to pay our staff if they are ready, willing and able to work, but through no fault of their own cannot work. When assessing an employee’s current situation, you need to consider several factors including any provisions in their employment agreement for crisis situations and any policies or procedures you have in place.
You should also consider the reasons they are not working and the current state of your business and workplace. If the situation is not covered in your employment agreement, then it is up to both parties to talk about it in good faith and agree what the time away from work will be classed as. Please get in touch with us if you need support with your workplace crisis policy.
Options for leave and payment
You have a variety of options when considering time that your staff cannot work during a crisis. Staff could take:
- Annual leave
- Other paid or unpaid leave, either as provided for in employment agreements or workplace policies, or by agreement between the employer and employee due to extenuating circumstances
- Alternative holidays
- Advance on their wages
- Sick leave (details below)
Please note, there are special rules for shift workers relating to the cancellation or early ending of a shift. Again, reach out to us if you find yourself in this situation.
The option you agree on will depend upon the circumstances, including the nature and extent of the disaster and how long it lasts. Once all leave entitlements under the Holidays Act 2003 and any negotiated additional leave or any anticipated leave entitlements run out, you will need to consider further options in good faith. Wherever possible, try to seek agreement with your employees and remain open to flexible solutions.
We strongly recommend you take some time with your management team if you have one, or intentionally on your own if you don’t, to create a Crisis Plan before you need one. Take time to consider any negative impacts on staff such as their pay (e.g. who will process and authorise payroll in a crisis). And ensure you know whether your insurance policies cover any lost remuneration for employees.
Employees can take sick leave if their partner or dependents are injured or sick and they have sick leave available, or you agree to extra sick leave. If your employee’s partner or dependent family member isn’t injured or sick but they require care, e.g., because their child’s school is closed, your employee can’t take sick leave. In some cases, employees may be able to continue to work while caring for their family, if you agree to this arrangement. If it’s not appropriate or possible for staff to continue working, you will need to agree on what basis your employee is off work.
Dealing with Stress
Disasters are strongly related to a loss of control and influence over what is happening. You can help support employees by providing a protective environment in which control, confidence and competence can be regained. Show your concern by listening, asking questions and delivering solutions. For example, if they are sincerely concerned about workplace safety, you may be able to provide them with an expert report showing the workplace is safe to help reassure them. Offer access to an employee assistance programme if you have one, and consider team debriefs or have a communication plan such as a daily blog or email. Act in good faith and be honest with your staff about the situation. And remember that supporting employees at a time when you may also be affected by the situation can be stressful. Make sure that you take good care of yourself and seek consultation and/or support, if needed.