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Now the real pandemic looms for NZ employers

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

With Omicron now in NZ, smart businesses will utilise the latest VOIP telephone technology to ensure they can work efficiently and productively. Being able to take your office phone home and work seamlessly will help business manage their way through staff absences.

Read on the article below to understand how Omicron will affect your business ...

So far during this pandemic, the biggest hit to New Zealand businesses has come from lockdowns and successful public health measures rather than Covid-19 illness. But as Omicron creeps into the community, that is all set to change.

NZ’s tightly-controlled pandemic will soon give way to the “big sick”, and as it arrives, employers will face their toughest challenge yet.

For those outside of Auckland, Covid-19 has been a relatively minor inconvenience, at least by international standards.

Due to effective Government strategies, most of the population has got away lightly. But as Covid becomes widespread for the first time, business owners will face a reckoning as they try to minimise disruption, keep their staff safe, and manage sickness across the workforce.

Throughout this crisis, events in other countries have offered a crystal ball to New Zealanders wondering what might happen next. In the UK, companies large and small have faced massive disruption during the recent Omicron outbreak, with co-workers and close contacts of cases forced into self-isolation, forcing many businesses to temporarily scale back or close.

Those kinds of stories are now trickling out of the Auckland Covid epicentre into wider New Zealand. In the Bay of Plenty this week, I was told of one large regional employer forced to become a skeleton operation due to a positive case, and another where management and employees were embroiled in a row over working-from-home. Bosses at that company have demanded their staff come into the office at all times, while the employees want to retain their right to work from home.

Workplace safety will be one of the main issues for businesses to contend with as the pandemic properly hits. WorkSafe has set up criteria for employers to assess their health and safety protocols in different settings. But a rising number of workers are set to challenge their employer for forcing them to come into work, especially if they can complete their tasks at home.

Employment law expert Max Whitehead, of the Auckland-based Whitehead Group, says people have begun to approach his firm “quite frequently” over Covid health and safety concerns. He believes employers in customer-facing industries, and SMEs, will face the most complex challenges.

“I would urge any employers out there to thoroughly assess their workplace,” he says. “There will be retail workers, café workers, who are not comfortable at all. Even people offering services in people’s homes, like tradesmen. They may not want to be sent into people homes. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.”

Covid-related absences, caused by illness or being deemed a close contact, will also threaten employers. The British government has been tasked with developing contingency plans for workplaces as Omicron decimates attendance. Officials have been told to brace for absences of up to 25 per cent across the private sector, the National Health Service, and schools.

It isn’t hard to imagine that happening in New Zealand. The attendance situation could get even worse over here, with new Government rules placing household contacts into isolation for up to 24 days, though that isolation period is under a rolling review. As the more transmissible variant runs rampant as it has around the world, that’s a lot of people holed up in their homes, with only some essential workers able to use rapid antigen tests to get out of home isolation.

While some business leaders have hit out at a lack of support under the new protection framework, they won’t be totally left to fend for themselves. The Government will offer a Leave Support Scheme to help pay self-isolating employees who are unable to work, ($600 per week for full-time workers and $359 for part-timers). Companies can also access a short-term absence payment to help pay employees waiting on test results.

That’s about as far as the state should go in this lockdown-less system, given its enormous and costly support for business so far. But looking at it from a business owner’s perspective, the payments won’t ease the worries of employers who can’t operate properly due to absences, those missing out on revenue because of those absences, and the need to pay fixed costs throughout.

Then there’s the prospect of long Covid. Thankfully, among vaccinated friends and family in England, the virus now seems to cause a week-long illness in most cases, with the vast majority bouncing back after a bit of rest and recuperation at home. Yet others face a longer road back. According to a US National Institutes of Health review, one in ten people with Covid experience at least one symptom for 12 weeks or longer.

Long Covid raises further questions for employers. What happens if an employee exhausts all of their sick leave while battling Covid? How do they manage a worker’s phased return if they’re unfit to return immediately? If a person is sick for months on end, at what stage, if any, is it appropriate to consider termination of their contract?

Those questions have led to countless legal disputes worldwide.

It’s hardly a rosy picture to have to paint, but the “big sick” is a grim reality that the rest of the world has had to manage over the past year.

For any employers considering their options as this perfect storm approaches, events in other countries suggest the following; have the strongest possible workplace safety protocols ready to protect your staff. And make sure you have a good lawyer.

If you need help to migrate to VoIP PABX, call Simplyfree.

Simplyfree is based in Wellington, New Zealand and provides smart business phone solutions such as Fibre, Broadband, Toll-Free, 0800 numbers, Unified Communications, Conference Calls, Call waiting, Call queuing, Voicemail to email, call recording, video team meetings and more!

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