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> COVID-19 Q&A

COVID-19 Q&A

Updated 13 October 2020

Considering the changing nature of COVID-19, the below outlines some common Q&A’s that we have received from workplaces and working parents regarding supporting expectant/new working parents at this unprecedented time.

Please note that this document will be updated with a time stamp included for reference.

If you have any additional questions not included in this document, please submit them to info@pwwp.org.au and we will endeavour to answer them in an updated version.


EXPECTANT/NEW PARENTS

Working Parents: Returning to School post-COVID

How can parents successfully transition their kids back to school after Stage 4 restrictions? 


Working Parents: Stage 4 Restrictions

I am due to have my baby soon. How will the current restrictions impact the birth experience? Can my partner stay with me during delivery, and after the birth? Are there any restrictions on the use of water during labour?

What are the entitlements for employees during childcare closures – can I take personal leave, or am I entitled to request flexible working arrangements?  

  • Under Stage 4 Restrictions in metropolitan Melbourne, childcare centres are only open to:
    • children of permitted workers, whose children cannot be cared for by the employee or another responsible adult at the employee’s residence; or
    • vulnerable children.
  • This means that employees who are unable to place their children in childcare and kinder will need to either take carer’s leave (personal leave) or come to an arrangement with their employer for temporary flexible work arrangements to accommodate their parental responsibilities (e.g. a part-time working arrangement of change in working hours). Carer’s leave is available in an ‘unexpected emergency’ – given the current state of disaster requiring childcare closures, this will be available to employees.
  • Under the Fair Work Act 2009, an employee can request flexible work where they have worked for their employer for 12 months or longer on a full-time or part-time basis and has responsibility for the care of a child who is of school age or younger. Employers must seriously consider a request for flexible working arrangements but may refuse on reasonable business grounds. Employees must make a written request for flexible work arrangements and set out the change sought and the reasons for the change. An employer must provide a written response within 21 days which outlines whether the request is approved or refused. Employers can only refuse a request on reasonable business grounds.
  • Examples of flexible working arrangements include:
    • changed starting and finishing times
    • part-time work or job sharing
    • working more hours over fewer days
    • working additional hours to make up for time taken off
    • taking rostered days off in half days or more flexibly or
    • time off work instead of overtime payments.

Do both carers need to be permitted workers to access childcare? 

  • Both carers do not have to be permitted workers to access childcare, it is only a requirement that the other parent is unable to supervise the child (e.g. if they are also working from home). However, the Victorian Government is asking that people only access childcare and kinder services if they have to.

Can everyone continue with pre-existing in-home arrangements? What if only one of us is a permitted worker? What if both parents are not permitted workers? 

  • Permitted workers are able to continue with pre-existing in-home care arrangements if there is no one else in their household who is able to supervise their child. This means that in two-parent households, one parent could be a permitted worker and the other is unable to supervise their child. To continue to access in-home arrangements, at least one parent would need to be a permitted worker. If both parents are non-permitted workers, in-home child care is not currently available under stage 4 restrictions in Metropolitan Melbourne.

Is everyone allowed to get grandparents to help with childcare? What if this was not a pre-existing arrangement? And does it matter if one or both parents are not permitted workers?  

  • The Victorian Government acknowledges that grandparents and elderly relatives play an important part in caring for children, but has emphasised that they be particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. As such they strongly advise these types of care arrangements are avoided where possible.
  • As stated above, there would need to be a pre-existing in-home care arrangement, no one else in the household who is able to supervise the child, and at least one parent is a permitted worker and the other is unable to supervise the child (for two parent households).

What if the parents are not living together? 

  • Permitted workers are able to access onsite childcare and kinder if there is no one else in their household who is able to supervise children. Therefore, a permitted worker in a single parent household can continue to access childcare and kinder.

Working Parents: General

What is known about the risk to pregnant women and babies and young children due to COVID-19?

I’ve recently found out I’m expecting a baby and I’m not sure when to announce it at work. There’s no urgency because I am currently working from home and no one can see my growing bump! When would you recommend, I tell them?

  • From a legal point of view, where an employee is eligible for unpaid parental leave there are certain notice requirements that apply. Employees have to give notice to their employer at least 10 weeks before starting their unpaid parental leave. This notice needs to be in writing, saying how much leave they want to take, including the start and finish dates.
  • If an employee cannot give 10 weeks notice, they need to give as much notice as possible.
  • One reason an employee may wish to tell their employer sooner is if it is unsafe for the employee to continue working in their usual position. In this case, the employee would be entitled to be transferred to an appropriate ‘safe job’.
  • Other than these situations, it is a decision for when an employee decides to tell their employer that they are pregnant.
  • From a psychological point of view, having open and honest conversations with your manager can help to create a positive parental leave experience. Some aspects of your pregnancy, such as morning sickness, health considerations and antenatal appointments are easier to manage when your employer is aware of your pregnancy, and it also gives your employer the opportunity to communicate important information relating to the support you can expect throughout pregnancy and parental leave such as Handover and Keeping in Touch plans etc.
  • If you have concerns about discussing your pregnancy with your manager, consider approaching HR to help address your concerns.

I am currently on parental leave and have used up the paid parental leave under the Federal government scheme. Am I entitled to JobKeeper payments? Does this change if I’m still receiving paid parental leave under my company’s scheme?

  • An employee is eligible for the JobKeeper scheme if they are not in receipt of the Australian Government’s paid parental leave.
  • Where an employee is paid the Australian Government’s paid parental leave and this overlaps with or includes the JobKeeper fortnight, the employee will not be eligible for the JobKeeper payment.
  • Once the employee ceases to receive the Government parental leave pay, they will be eligible for JobKeeper for the remainder of their parental leave (or until the JobKeeper scheme ends).
  • This only applies to the Government’s paid parental leave scheme, not a company paid parental leave scheme. Therefore, an employee will be eligible for JobKeeper while in receipt of their company’s paid parental leave, the JobKeeper payments will in effect subsidise the Company’s paid parental leave.

I am currently on parental leave, can I still use Keeping in Touch Days given that most if not all of our workplace is still working from home?  And is it worth it since I won’t see anyone face to face?

  • Keeping in Touch Days are a good way for employees to stay up to date with the workplace, refresh their skills and help with the transition back to work. Not only does this connection reduce social isolation at a vulnerable life-stage, but it also helps to maintain valuable relationships with managers and co-workers. This builds trust and loyalty, and reduces the potential to experience unconscious bias relating to career commitment. Engaging in KIT days also provides an opportunity for open communication regarding the transition back to work, allowing employee and employer to work through concerns and possible solutions.
  • An employee on unpaid parental leave can access up to 10 Keeping in Touch Days, which can be taken in whole or part days. An employee receives their normal wage for each Keeping in Touch Day or part day.
  • Although employees may be working from home, virtual and telephone Keeping in Touch Days can be used to maintain contact with the workplace. Many workplaces are in e-contact (rather than face-to-face contact) with employees during this period impacted by COVID-19. Keeping in Touch Days are a good way to stay in contact, but there is no obligation for employees to use the Keeping in Touch Days if they don’t want to.
  • We strongly recommend discussing your KIT days with your employer to agree how they can be best used during this time.
  • See more information about ‘Staying Connected During Parental Leave’ https://pwwp.org.au/wp-content/uploads/A4-Staying-Connected-Email.pdf

If I want to extend my parental leave due to concerns over COVID-19, can I do so? If so, what do I need to consider?

  • From a legal point of view, employees are eligible to take 12 months of unpaid parental leave if they have completed at least 12 months of continuous service with their employer. An employee can request an extension of a further 12 months leave (up to 24 months in total). The request must be in writing and given to the employer at least four weeks before the end of their initial period of parental leave. The employer must respond in writing within 21 days, saying whether they grant or refuse the request on reasonable business grounds.
  • Employees do not have to provide a reason to extend parental leave. However, if they have used up all their parental leave entitlements, and are concerned about returning to the workplace, they should discuss other types of leave or work arrangements available with their employer.
  • You may also want to consider childcare implications that impact your plans to return to work at this time.
  • For health concerns relating to COVID-19 and your child, please refer to the following website for information. This web page is regularly updated with the latest medical guidance. https://www.cope.org.au/getting-help/self-help/covid-19-updates-for-pregnant-women-children-and-parents/

I am returning from parental leave, and before I had my child I was working full-time. Our entire workforce is now on reduced hours as a result of COVID-19 and is working split shifts. However, the shifts I’ve been allocated do not work for my family commitments (school/daycare pickups). What rights do I have to choose my shifts?

  • From a legal point of view, employees returning from parental leave have the right to request flexible working arrangements, which can include working part-time instead of full-time, changing start and finish times, and working from home.  
  • If an employee wishes to make a request for flexible working arrangements, and these are different to the existing working hours staff are working due to COVID-19, the employee should make a request in writing. The employee should explain what changes they require and the reasons for this (e.g. school/daycare pickups). 
  • Employers must respond to a request within 21 days, and outline whether it is approved or refused. Employers can only refuse a request based on reasonable business grounds and they must include the reasons for the refusal. If the employee is award-covered, the employer must meet with the employee (which may be by e-meeting in the current environment) and discuss the employee’s request, including considering alternatives if the request cannot be agreed to.
  • From a psychological point of view, we advocate for open conversations with your managers wherever possible. Ensure you clearly express your needs, acknowledge your understanding of business priorities, and seek to work together to find possible solutions. 

Workplaces

We have a pregnant employee and we are concerned about the health and safety risk since we work in a high-risk area. Ordinarily, we would move her to a safe desk job, but there is no appropriate safe job available. What are our options?

  • Examples of high risk areas include retail, healthcare, teaching, aged-care, childcare, and other service providers with high volume contact.
  • From a legal point of view, a pregnant employee is entitled to be transferred to an appropriate ‘safe job’ where it is inadvisable that they continue in their present position because of illness or risks arising out of the pregnancy or hazards connected with that position. Where there is no appropriate safe job available, and the employee is entitled to unpaid  parental leave in accordance with the Fair Work Act 2009 (i.e. at least 12 months of continuous service), then the employee is entitled to ‘no safe job leave’ for the risk period and to be paid at their base rate of pay for ordinary hours of work during the risk period. Although the name of the entitlement is “no safe job leave”, this is not deducted from any type of accrued leave balance.
  • If there is no appropriate safe job available, and the employee is not entitled to unpaid parental leave under the Fair Work Act 2009, then the employee is entitled to take unpaid ‘no safe job leave’ for the risk period.
  • Where an employee is on paid no safe job leave during the six week period before the expected date of birth, an employer may ask the employee to give the employer a medical certificate stating whether they are fit for work.
  • The employer may require the employee to take a period of unpaid parental leave, if they are eligible, as soon as practical if:
    • The employee does not give their employer a medical certificate within 7 days after the request or;
    • Within 7 days after the request, the employee provides a certificate stating they are not fit for work.
  • ‘No safe job leave’ ends when the period of unpaid parental leave in accordance with the Fair Work Act 2009 starts.
  • Additionally, during the period where workplaces are impacted by COVID-19, employers can stand employees down (including pregnant employees) where they cannot be usefully employed because of a stoppage of work for which the employer cannot be held responsible. For employees who are receiving Job Keeper payments, there are further ‘Job Keeper enabling stand down’ provisions which may apply, however these should not be utilised in a discriminatory manner. 
  • In addition to the options of ‘no safe job leave’, commencing unpaid parental leave early, or stand down, employers may consider requesting employees to take other forms of leave such as annual leave or leave without pay, in accordance with any applicable industrial instruments.
  • For updated advice relating to health during pregnancy, please refer to the latest advice from RANZCOG: https://ranzcog.edu.au/news/covid-19-and-pregnant-health-care-workers

An employee has been on parental leave for nearly two years and is due to return to work shortly. Given the unique context of COVID-19, what recommendations do you have to support a returner in this unique environment?

  • Employers should promote an open and inclusive working environment. To support the transition back to the workplace during this time, we recommend the following strategies:
    • Support the practicalities of remote working, if needed. Where employees are working remotely, employers should make practical and logistical information available for the returning employee (e.g. start date, hours of work, organisational chart, key team contacts, equipment set up such as lap top, mobile phone, VPN, etc).
    • Create a re-onboarding plan: Identify the gaps in knowledge and training, and plan for resolving those gaps. Consider the use of Keeping in Touch days to gradually transition back into full-time work, or use these days to engage in training or re-onboarding in the weeks leading up to full-time return
    • Mark the occasion: Formally re-introduce them to the organisation via a group call, welcome them back and ensure everyone is reminded of their role and value to the business.
    • Facilitate connections: Implement regular team catch-ups (virtual if needed), individual check-ins, non-work related chats and virtual social arrangements. Consider a buddy system so that there is one person outside the ‘official’ channels who can check in on them and answer any questions they have. Setting up a Parents Network can also provide valuable connection for newly returned parents – see more information about ‘How to Set up a Working Parent Network’ – https://pwwp.org.au/wp-content/uploads/A4-WPN-Email.pdf

Our business has temporarily closed as a result of COVID-19. We have some employees on parental leave, and so ideally we would like them to extend their leave. What are our options if they do not wish to do this? If they agree to extend their leave, are there any implications we need to consider?

  • From a legal point of view, it is at the discretion of the employee whether to choose to extend their parental leave or not. The maximum amount of parental leave that can be taken is 24 months in total (an initial 12 months period can be extended by a further 12 months).
  • If the employee does not wish to extend their parental leave, and there is no work available for the employee, other options can be considered, such as:
    • Directing an employee to take annual leave in accordance with the relevant award, enterprise agreement or legislation;
    • Stand down or partial stand down of employees where they cannot be usefully employed because of a stoppage of work for which the employer cannot be held responsible. This includes stand down where an employee is in receipt of the JobKeeper subsidy and employers can issue a JobKeeper Enabling Direction regarding duties of work, hours of work or location;
    • Offer of suitable available job where the employee’s previous role does not exist anymore or it has changed. This job must be a role that the employee is qualified and suited to work in, and is nearest to their old job in pay and status.
    • Redundancy where there is no requirement for the work to be performed by anyone anymore.
  • With the above options, consultation obligations in accordance with the relevant industrial instrument must be followed.
  • From a psychological point of view, we recommend prompt, open communication wherever possible. If practical, engage the employee in the problem-solving process. Employees should also be reminded of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for confidential counselling to support them through this period of potential stress and uncertainty. 

REMOTE WORKING FOR WORKING PARENTS

Working Parents

Given there is so much we do not yet know about COVID-19, do I have a choice about whether I can remain working from home?

  • From a legal point of view, ultimately it is an employer’s choice as to whether employees can work from home or not, although it should be in line with advice from Federal and State governments. Employers must provide a safe work environment, so far as it is reasonably practicable. In the current climate, this includes hygiene protocols and social distancing measures. Where there are legitimate safety concerns, employees should raise these with their employer.
  • From a psychological point of view, we recommend discussing your specific concerns with your employer. They may have solutions to your concerns that have not been communicated yet, or you may raise issues they have not yet thought of.  It’s valuable to create open dialogue so that you can keep discussing suitable work arrangements as the COVID-19 situation evolves.

I’ve recently returned from parental leave and everyone in my organisation is working from home. I feel like I’m not being included in group chats and group emails. I’ve very anxious and feel like I have no support. What should I do?

  • Working from home, particularly for new employees, can be an isolating experience. Employees should reach out to their managers or HR if feeling anxious or apprehensive about returning to work.
  • We recommend that employers schedule regular catch-ups on a team and individual basis, particularly for newly returned employees. Managers may need to devote additional time to re-onboarding returning employees, assisting them to become familiar with new processes and introducing them to new team members. 
  • Where employees are engaging with one another via electronic they can ‘forget’ to observe the usual standards of workplace behaviour which can, in some circumstances, amount to bullying and other types of harassment. Bullying can range from inappropriate or offensive written or verbal comments, but can also take less obvious forms such as exclusion from discussions or work activities. Where co-workers are interacting solely through electronic means such as electronic messaging, context and tone can be misunderstood, which can lead to the perception that an employee is being treated adversely or unfairly, despite the contrary intention of the sender.
  • Communication is key – employers should remind staff about work and behaviour expectations. Workplace policies, including Codes of Conduct, will continue to apply whilst working remotely and employees should be reminded of this and how to report complaints if concerns arise.
  • For additional support, we recommend contacting your employer’s EAP (details are usually available on intranet, in policy documentation or via HR).

Workplaces

All staff are working from home. We have an employee who is working from home with young children and is difficult to contact and does not reply to emails within business hours. Do employees have to be available all day?

  • As with employees who would ordinarily work in the office, it would be expected that employees are working during work hours, but do not necessarily have to available at all times throughout the day.
  • Bearing in mind the heightened experience in the current environment, employers should ensure expectations are discussed and understood with employees. In the event there are known personal pressures such as looking after young children, employers should adopt a flexible and empathetic approach while also making reasonable directions around performance of work.

We are concerned that, because a large percentage of our workforce is still working remotely, we won’t be able to spot the signs of mental distress in our employees. What advice do you have for how we can stay on top of that and make sure our employees are reaching out for support if they need it?

Don’t forget if you have any additional questions, please submit them to info@pwwp.org.au and we will endeavour to answer them in an updated version of the Agile Q&A.

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