Business in a (COVID-19) bubble

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Managing employee and business-related travel in the COVID-19 pandemic

With the Cook Islands and Australian travel bubbles now fully operational, Kiwis are finally able to take off on a long-awaited holiday. For employers, this raises some questions as to how to manage employees’ personal and work-related travel.

Even though the bubbles between New Zealand, Australia and the Cook Islands are now open, overseas travel still comes at a heightened health and monetary risk. If a case is found within a bubble and it has no known source, the Government has warned that brief (and in some cases, extended) lockdowns will ensue – as we are now seeing in the state of Victoria. The New Zealand Government’s guide to travelling in the bubble can be found here.

Employees who travel may be stuck overseas for extended periods or have to stay a stint in a managed isolation facility to return to New Zealand. This has the potential to significantly impact client-facing roles and hands-on work. So how do you manage the risks of an employee going travelling or sending an employee overseas for work?

Employees’ personal travel

If an employee has asked to take annual leave to travel overseas, employers must approach this request in good faith. Consent to leave applications cannot be unreasonably withheld. However, it may be a good idea to consider the leave application in light of the current COVID-19/lockdown risk and whether you could mitigate or manage those risks if they do materialise. If, for instance, the employee cannot work remotely and they do not have enough leave (and are not willing to take unpaid leave) to cover an extended period away it may be reasonable to ask the employee to defer their travel. So long as your reasons for denying the leave are good ones we recommend being up front with an employee and recording the reasons in an email.

It is essential that employers and employees understand the risks and make a contingency plan if COVID-19 circumstances were to change. The plan should cover:

  • whether, and if so how, the employee can work remotely in the event they get stuck overseas or in managed isolation
  • whether the employee would be required to return a negative COVID-19 test or period of isolation before returning to the office
  • whether the employee will be permitted to take unpaid leave in the event they run out of annual leave and cannot return to work or work remotely, and
  • how long the employee’s position will be held open for them if they get stuck overseas for an indefinite period.

Work-related travel 

Employers may send employees to Australia or the Cook Islands for business-related travel. However, you are responsible for their health and safety during this trip.

The benefit of overseas travel should be weighed against the risk to health and safety and the potential costs for your business. You should also ensure that your employee is happy to travel overseas and feels safe in doing so. The impact of COVID-19 on mental health is a risk which employers are increasingly having to come to grips with. 

While your employee is on the business trip you will be responsible for:

  • all food, accommodation and travel costs incurred for business-related purposes including those costs caused by an extended stay because of a lockdown
  • managed isolation fees if this becomes a pre-condition of their return
  • the employee’s normal wage even if they become stuck overseas and cannot work remotely
  • paying the employee other types of leave if they contract COVID-19 during the trip and run out of sick leave, and
  • covering medical costs if the employee contracts COVID-19 while overseas.

It is important to check what (if any) of the above costs your business travel insurance is willing to cover so that you are aware of the extent of the potential financial implications for your business. Open discussions with staff are also key to ensure their agreeance to travelling in the bubble.

How can we help?

WRMK Lawyers has Northland’s largest team of employment law specialists. If you need some help or guidance, please give one of us a call or contact your usual WRMK lawyer for advice. You can view our Employment Law team here.

WRMK Lawyers takes all reasonable care to make sure that the information in this article is up-to-date and accurate at today’s date. It is necessarily general information and not intended as legal advice to be relied upon.

Our thanks to Kezia Purdie for writing this article.