What are your employee relations obligations in a pandemic?

employee relations

As governments and businesses scramble to cope with the operational and economic fallout of COVID-19, employee relations obligations have become a potential minefield. 

In a recent Facebook Live, SmartCompany news editor Matt Elmas spoke with Employsure managing director Ed Mallett about the next phase of JobKeeper, the future of flexible work, and health and safety in — and out of — the workplace. 

CovidSafe plans not just a piece of paper

CovidSafe plans add another layer to your existing OH&S obligations. Mallett stresses they must be taken seriously, since as an employer your fundamental requirement is to provide a safe workplace. 

SafeWork Australia has some excellent resources to support businesses through the process of creating a CovidSafe plan, with lots of templates for various industries and guidance as to the sort of things you might consider in your workplace. 

“Even with good online tools, you still need to think carefully about your own business, and not kid yourself,” Mallett says. “You’ve got to look practically at what you can achieve in your business — what you believe you can stick to.” 

OH&S obligations follow workers home

Businesses need to show they have put in place effective measures to protect the health and safety of staff — even when they’re working from home, Mallett warns.

“If people are going to increasingly work from home, as seems likely going forward with a number of businesses, the level of forgiveness in the safety regulators is probably going to diminish,” he says. 

“If you’re now looking at permanent solutions at home you need to start considering things like desk set-ups and so on. It actually could be quite costly for businesses to do appropriate set-ups, maybe having to invest in equipment for staff if they’re really going to work from home long-term.” 

JobKeeper changes: “Prepare for the worst”

There has already been a proposed $15 billion backflip to make JobKeeper easier to access from September, but remember JobKeeper 2.0 (or 3.0) won’t be legislated until late August, and they’re still tweaking. 

Mallett suggests business owners “prepare for the worst, but hope for the best” with a good forward-planning exercise — assume you won’t be eligible, look at projected revenue and cost base over whatever period, and potential reductions. 

“Once I get onto the staff costs, I need to ask some dynamic questions about who I need to keep to ensure I can achieve those revenue targets, and who I may need to let go — either through redundancy, or if they’re casuals potentially just reducing headcount,” Mallett says. 

JobKeeper is a really crucial tool for small business in that it “allows you to make quite a few unilateral decisions about staff — like standing them down” he explains. So if you’re not already on it, check online or with an accountant to see if you qualify. 

Businesses face tough questions 

 The first wave of shutdowns came as a shock to many business owners who are now being jolted into action, according to Mallett. But moving from crisis-management to medium-term planning means facing up to some difficult questions. 

“Business owners, particularly small business owners, are very, very sentimental towards their staff,” Mallett says. “The most common thing I hear from people is ‘How do I keep these people employed?’, which is understandable for many employers who are loyal to their staff. 

“But they also have to ask: ‘How do I best manage my business through this crisis? That’s your obligation to your business, and an approach that ultimately benefits the majority of employees.” 

Really effective communication can go a long way towards solving problems before they occur, he adds, so make sure you’re adhering to the ‘Three Cs’: clear, consistent and concise.

“As soon as the government stops doing that, everyone starts criticising and so on, and absolutely the same is true for your employees,” Mallett says. “If you’re updating people, being transparent and telling them how it is — you’ll find that you’ll achieve better solutions than you would do by door-stepping people.”


Australia has one of the most difficult workplace relations systems in the world. Employsure is here to help employers navigate the complexity. Employsure is the largest provider of employment relations and work health and safety services in Australia — servicing more than 24,000 clients nationally. More than 300 advisers and consultants provide independent advice to business owners on their workplace relations and health and safety obligations. Every day Employsure gives business owners the confidence that their workplaces are safe, fair and compliant.

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