COVID-19 frequently asked questions for public service HR practitioner and managers

The Queensland Government is committed to the health and safety of its employees in response to COVID-19 (Novel coronavirus). Queensland Health—as lead agency—is the first point of contact for accurate and up-to-date health information.

These frequently asked questions (FAQs) will provide workforce and employment-related advice and inform the Public Service Commission’s HR Assist Service for Queensland public service HR practitioners and managers. FAQs will be updated regularly with input from the Office of Industrial Relations and based on latest Queensland health advice.

This advice has developed by the Queensland Public Service Commission in partnership with the Office of Industrial Relations and is based on latest health advice and is current as of 2 April 2020.

1. Employees and self-quarantine or self-isolation

What is the difference between self-quarantine and self-isolation?

If an employee has been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed as positive with COVID-19, or they have been identified as at risk based on latest health advice, they will be asked to self-quarantine at home. The reason an employee may be asked to self-quarantine is if they are carrying the virus – and could have it without showing symptoms yet – they will not pass it on to anyone else.

People who have been diagnosed as COVID-19 positive will be asked by Queensland Health to self-isolate. Depending on how unwell they are, this may be done at home or in a healthcare facility.

An employee is required to self-quarantine or self-isolate in accordance with health advice, and they are not sick. How can agencies support them?

Public service employees who are not sick, but are required to self-quarantine or self-isolate in accordance with health advice, can access flexible work arrangements, including work from home. In situations where this is not possible, an employee may apply for special leave in accordance with Special Leave Directive 05/17. Flexible work and access to special leave should be discussed with the employee’s manager or supervisor.

How will a workplace be informed if an employee receives health advice that they have had confirmed exposure to someone who has tested positive with COVID-19?

If an employee receives health advice that they have been identified as a close contact, they will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days and should inform their employer. During this time, the agency should consider work from home arrangements or special leave under Special Leave Directive 05/17, if this cannot be accommodated.

If the employee develops symptoms during their self-quarantine period, they should contact Queensland Health, or their medical practitioner in the first instance and their employer, particularly if they have been in the workplace. Public health authorities may also contact employers in the event an employee is confirmed to have coronavirus.

If an agency believes an employee has been exposed to COVID-19, can they be directed to self-quarantine or self-isolate if they are not sick?

No. Any considerations regarding an employee’s requirement to self-quarantine or self-isolate should be based on health advice. Queensland Health—as lead agency—is the first point of contact for accurate and up-to-date health information. Public health management currently involves stringent contact tracing in relation to confirmed cases. Individuals that have had close contact with a confirmed case will be assessed and managed accordingly by the relevant public health unit.

If an employee receives advice that they have been identified as a close contact of someone testing positive for COVID-19, they will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

During this time, the workplace might be able to implement work from home arrangements. Any decisions regarding flexible work should be made between the employee and their manager with regard for the circumstances, the agency’s HR policies and the flexible work framework within the Industrial Relations Act 2016.

If the employee develops symptoms during their self-quarantine period, they should contact Queensland Health or their medical practitioner in the first instance and their employer, particularly if they have been in the workplace. Public health authorities may contact employers in the event an employee is confirmed to have coronavirus.

If agencies have concerns outside of this advice and believe that an employee may be at risk, conversations between employees and managers are encouraged and flexible work arrangements may be considered.

2. Employees testing positive to COVID-19

If an employee receives health advice that they have tested positive to COVID-19 what action should a workplace take?

The employer may be contacted by Queensland Health public health unit (PHU) if an employee tests positive for COVID-19, particularly if they have been present in the workplace.

Regarding the employer notifying or reporting a positive case—this is not required as positive cases are notified to the PHU by the respective hospital, GP or pathology lab. The PHU will contact the positive case and undertake an investigation for potential contact traces. The PHU may then approach the employer to assist further with contact tracing.

What happens if there is a suspected or confirmed case in a Queensland Government owned or leased building?

The Queensland Government Accommodation Office and Department of Housing and Public Works have developed an Incident Protocol (DOCX, 429 KB) to detail the response that should be undertaken when there is a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 in a Queensland Government owned or leased building with government tenants.

What resources are available to help communicate social distancing in office environments?

Queensland Government Accommodation Office and Department of Housing and Public Works have developed a serios of posters which agencies can use to communicate social distancing guidelines including:

How will contact tracing happen?

As soon as a person returns a positive result for COVID-19 Queensland Health will undertake what is called contact tracing to prevent the infection spreading further to the community.

As part of this process, they will speak to the patient to identify anyone, including work colleagues, who might have had close contact with them during their infections window. If there are people considered as close contacts, who are at a higher risk Queensland Health will follow up with them directly.

As part of this process, they will speak to the patient to identify anyone, including work colleagues, who might have had close contact with them during their infections window. If there are people considered as close contacts, who are at a higher risk Queensland Health will follow up with them directly.

Is an employee is notified that they are a close contact, and they have been asked to self-quarantine on health advice, they should inform their manager, or employer immediately.

If an employee receives health advice that they have had confirmed exposure to someone who has tested positive with COVID-19, or they themselves have tested positive to COVID-19, how will a workplace be informed?

If an employee receives health advice that they have been identified as a close contact, they will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days and should inform their employer.

During this time, the agency should consider working from home or special leave if this cannot be accommodated.

If the employee develops symptoms during their self-quarantine period, they should contact their employer and advise of this, particularly if they have been in the workplace. Public health authorities may also contact employers in the event an employee is confirmed to have coronavirus.

What reporting of cases is happening within Queensland Government?

The Public Service Commission is collating a whole-of-government reporting framework to capture de-identified COVID-19-related employee data, including illness, caring responsibilities and self-isolation on health advice. This is managed via each agency’s Chief Human Resources Officer to give an indication of workforce impacts. The results are shared daily with the State Disaster Coordination Centre for daily reporting, and with the Queensland Government Leadership Board.

What cleaning should a workplace undertake if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?

The Australian Government Department of Health has developed a fact sheet to provide advice about environmental cleaning and disinfection principles for COVID-19 (PDF, 665 KB).

3. Leave arrangements

Is there a directive that will provide additional entitlements to employees impacted by COVID-19?

Minister for Industrial Relations and Commission Chief Executive Directive 01/20: Employment Arrangements in the Event of a Health Pandemic outlines entitlements for public service employees as defined in section 9 of the Public Service Act 2008 in the event of a declared health pandemic, such as COVID-19.

What leave arrangements are available if an employee tests positive with COVID19?

If an employee is absent due to illness, they may access sick leave in accordance with their industrial entitlements and where relevant, the applicable human resources policy of their agency.

The Minister for Industrial Relations and Commission Chief Executive Directive 01/20: Employment Arrangements in the Event of a Health Pandemic provides for additional pandemic leave entitlements for public service employees as defined under section 9 of the Public Service Act 2008, where sick leave entitlements have been exhausted.

Employees should discuss the appropriate leave arrangements with their manager or agency HR.

What leave arrangements are available if an employee’s family member has been diagnosed with COVID-19?

If an employee is required to provide care or support for a member of their immediate family or household, they may access carer’s leave debited from their existing sick leave balances in line with their industrial entitlements and where relevant, the applicable human resource policies of their agency.

In circumstances where an employee has exhausted their entitlement to paid sick leave, Minister for Industrial Relations and Commission Chief Executive Directive 01/20: Employment Arrangements in the Event of a Health Pandemic provides for additional pandemic leave entitlements for public service employees as defined under section 9 of the Public Service Act 2008.

The school or childcare centre attended by the children of an employee closes with short notice due to potential COVID-19 exposure. Can employees access carer’s leave to care for their children?

Current industrial instruments allow for an employee to access carer’s leave debited from their sick leave balance if they are impacted by school or childcare centre closures. Once an employee has exhausted their sick leave entitlement, the Minister for Industrial Relations and Commission Chief Executive Directive 01/20: Employment Arrangements in the Event of a Health Pandemic provides for additional pandemic leave entitlements for public service employees as defined under section 9 of the Public Service Act 2008.

An employee has requested to work from home as their children’s school or childcare centre is closed due to COVID-19. Can this request be supported?

While an employee may access carer’s leave debited from their sick leave to provide care in circumstances, such as school or childcare closures, it should not be considered that this is the only option available for the employee.

Each decision should take into account the individual circumstances that apply following discussions with the employee involved. The employee and manager should consider the supervision needs for the child or children as well as the ability of the employee to carry out the duties of their role at home. Whilst special pandemic leave is only available in full day blocks and cannot be converted to an hourly entitlement, it may also be appropriate in some circumstances that the employees could access a combination of carer’s leave and flexible work arrangements.

These requests could also be considered in the context of an agency’s business continuity planning.

A casual employee becomes unwell with COVID-19 or has carer responsibilities and cannot attend work. Are there paid leave options available?

Minister for Industrial Relations and Commission Chief Executive Directive 01/20: Employment Arrangements in the Event of a Health Pandemic provides for paid pandemic leave entitlements for public sector employees including casuals as defined under section 9 of the Public Service Act 2008.

Sections 9 and 10 of the implementation guideline for this directive outline how it applies to casual employees.

4. Flexible work/work from home/business continuity

How is remote working happening across government?

Advice to Queensland Government departments is that they continue to enact their business continuity plans for their workforce, using the latest health advice.

Where possible staff should be taking up flexible work arrangements, which means working from home where you can in discussion with managers or Agency HR.
There are some important HR matters to note:

  • where flexible work arrangements are not practical, normal leave arrangements apply. For example, an employee may be able to access recreation leave, long service leave, accrued time, flexitime or similar arrangements (should they apply)
  • the requirements to access existing leave such as carer’s leave have not changed
  • each employee’s circumstances need to be considered separately
  • employees are encouraged to continue to talk through their personal circumstances with their manager, or agency HR.

Managers are encouraged to speak with their team members about work arrangements that best suit them, their individual circumstances, and the critical public service work that needs to continue or shift to support the COVID-19 pandemic response.

A range of resources have been developed for agency HR and managers within the public service to support employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They have been made available online and have been distributed through a number of internal channels to support all employees with information about health and safety, leave and employment, flexible work and FAQ’s relating to COVID-19 workforce questions as they emerge.
As the COVID-19 pandemic situation evolves, so too does the government’s approach and we will continue to act using the latest health advice.

Any employees with concerns about their work arrangements are encouraged to talk to their supervisors or agency HR representatives to ensure their health and wellbeing concerns are being addressed.

A workplace has been required to close due to COVID-19. Can I request employees to work from an alternative location?

Yes, employees may be requested to work at a different location or access flexible work arrangements. Where workplace arrangements need to be varied to accommodate business continuity planning for a health pandemic, these arrangements will be, wherever possible:

  • made in advance and in consultation with employees, employee representatives and relevant unions where required
  • within the relevant legislative framework
  • applied fairly and equitably at the workplace.

An employee has advised they will not attend work due to their fear of contracting COVID-19. How should this be approached?

The safety and wellbeing of public service employees is a priority of the Queensland Government and managers should approach situations such as this sensitively. A conversation should occur to understand the employee’s fears and to address these making reference to health advice issued by Queensland Health with options such as remote or flexible working explored. If all other options have been explored, and there are no reasonable barriers to their attendance, agencies could consider a lawful direction to the employee and consider disciplinary action should the employee not comply.

How can I ensure my team’s service delivery is not interrupted during the COVID-19 situation?

Each agency is required to continually review and update a business continuity plan (BCP) to ensure priority service requirements are identified and appropriate plans are put in place to allow for these services to continue under most eventualities.

Will employees have access to workers’ compensation entitlements if working from home?

Both employees and agencies have a duty of care in supporting the health and safety of employees when work from home arrangements are in place.

When working from home, employees may be covered by worker’s compensation, including during breaks from their work if they sustain a work-related injury. An entitlement to worker’s compensation arises if an employee is injured or becomes unwell during the course of employment, and employment is a significant contributing factor to the injury or illness. As with all statutory compensation claims, a claim will need to be lodged by the employee with WorkCover for determination. Visit WorkSafe for more information about the health and safety of telecommuters.

Should agencies cease or delay recruitment and selection processes on account of the pandemic situation?

Agencies should consider their changing work priorities in light of COVID-19, capacity to continue planned recruitment activities and business continuity requirements. A flexible thinking approach to selection activities may assist agencies continue recruitment as well as supporting social distancing measures. Suggestions could include expanding selection activities to include work tasks that can be undertaken by a candidate remotely and/or arranging for video conferencing to replace face to face interviews.

Are employees entitled to reimbursement for excess costs pertaining to phone and internet access due to being required to work from home?

Agencies may already have a policy framework in place to consider requests for reimbursement of excess costs relating to telecommuting during this period, and should refer to these policies accordingly. Examples of excess costs include additional charges for home internet where an employee has exceeded their data limits, or work related telephone calls where an employee does not have an unlimited mobile telephone plan. Where there is no current policy which addresses excess costs relating to telecommuting arrangements, agencies may wish to consider applications on a case by case basis where excess costs have been incurred, or alternatively, committing to a consistent policy position on the matter.

Is there are a current sector-wide direction for public service employees to work from home where possible?

The reality is there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to remote working across our public sector workforce in response to this global health pandemic. Rather, each Queensland Government agency is actioning their workforce-specific, scalable, business continuity plans. This includes the ability for parts of the public service to work from home.

In line with latest social distancing principles and health advice, managers are encouraging staff not involved in critical front-line service delivery to work flexibly, including working from home where possible.

A range of resources have been developed for agency HR and managers within the public service to support their employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been made available online and have been distributed through a number of internal channels to support all employees with information about health and safety, leave and employment, flexible work and FAQ’s relating to COVID-19 workforce questions as they emerge.

Employee health, safety and wellbeing is a priority. Any employees with concerns about their work arrangements are encouraged to talk to their supervisors or agency HR representatives to ensure their health and wellbeing concerns are being addressed.

Agencies and employees are encouraged to keep abreast of the public messaging and announcements from Queensland Health during this period.

How should human rights be considered when making decisions during the declared pandemic?

Under the Human Rights Act 2019 decision makers have an obligation to act and make decisions in a way that is compatible with human rights, and when making decisions, to give proper consideration to human rights. Decision makers will need to consider what, if any, human rights may be impacted by each action or decision and if any limitation is reasonable. Further information on identifying and assessing human rights can be accessed here.

5. Travel/employees returning from overseas

An employee has recently returned from overseas travel. How should this be considered by the agency?

The Australian Government has imposed a universal precautionary self-isolation requirement on all international arrivals, effective from 11:59pm Sunday 15 March 2020. This means that all people—whether they be citizens, residents or otherwise—will be required to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival in Australia. Employees must follow this public health direction.

Public service employees who are required to self-isolate in these circumstances who are not sick will be allowed flexible work arrangements, including work from home wherever possible. In situations where this is not possible, an employee may apply for special leave in accordance with the Special Leave Directive 05/17. Flexible work arrangements and access to special leave should be discussed with the employee’s manager or supervisor.

An employee has a belief that they have contracted COVID-19 through contact that occurred in the workplace.

An employee’s entitlement to worker’s compensation arises if they sustain a work-related injury, and employment is a significant contributing factor to the injury or illness.
To determine potential COVID-19 claims, WorkCover will require employees to provide:

  • medical confirmation of COVID-19 diagnosis; and
  • evidence to demonstrate that the COVID-19 exposure occurred within their work environment; and
  • medical confirmation that employment was a significant contributing factor to the contraction of COVID-19.

6. Employees returning to work after self-quarantine or self-isolation or after recovering from COVID-19

Do employees need a medical certificate at end of self-quarantine or self-isolation? What evidence should employers seek for employees returning to work?

Queensland Health does not require or issue a medical certificate at the end of quarantine (no symptoms, such as arrival from overseas) or self-isolation (positive case or identified close contact under public health order).

From a public health legislative perspective, positive cases and close contacts will be issued a Public Health Order for the period of isolation/quarantine.

This could be used as evidence for employers for COVID-19 leave requirement. They will also receive an SMS from the Public Health Unit around day 13 notifying them that if they have no symptoms as at day 14 their isolation/quarantine period ends. The SMS could also be used as evidence of satisfying the isolation period ending.

Regarding return to work, there may be other factors that will impact the individual’s work capacity which HR practitioners and mangers should take into consideration.

While from the health response perspective we do not require or issue medical certificates, we are aware some industries such as aged care are requiring employees to get medical certificates prior to return to work.

What happens when an employee ends 14 days of self-quarantine or self-isolation?

If an employee has self-quarantined or self-isolated on health advice for 14 days without any symptoms, they are free to go about their usual activities and return to work.

7. Employment conditions

How does the declared pandemic impact on decision making about temporary engagements?

Temporary employment must be considered on a case-by-case basis. COVID-19 related circumstances (such as absences due to being ill or having to access leave due to caring responsibilities, self-isolation and/or school closure measures) should not be relied upon by agencies to cease an employee’s temporary engagement early.

Any decision to end a temporary engagement should continue to be made based on operational needs and in line with agency HR policies, and the terms of the engagement.

An agency considering extension of a temporary engagement should have regard to whether there is a continuing need for the person in that role based on business and operational plans and priorities.

Temporary employment conversion reviews must continue to be conducted in line with the requirements of the Temporary employment directive. As part of the review process, agencies must consider whether there is a continuing need for the temporary employee to be employed in the role or one that is substantially the same, and whether the role is likely to be ongoing.

Where there is a continuing need for the temporary employee in an ongoing role, and the merit requirements are satisfied so that conversion to permanent employment is recommended, consideration must also be given to whether there are any genuine operational reasons not to convert. This should be applied in the same way as is it is currently considered – having regard to the circumstances, the agency’s strategic, operational and business plans, and any other relevant operational documents.

The temporary conversion checklist, the directive and supporting resources can assist in decision making.

What arrangements should be in place for vulnerable employees?

There are cohorts of employees across the sector who are likely to considered vulnerable or high risk during the health pandemic.

Currently, those over 70, those over 65 with chronic medical conditions, those with compromised immune systems and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 50 who have existing health conditions are at greater risk of becoming more seriously ill if they contract COVID19.

Where vulnerable workers undertake essential or frontline work, a risk assessment must be undertaken to determine whether it is appropriate for the employee to continue attending at the workplace. Where risks cannot be appropriately mitigated, managers and employees should consider alternate arrangements to accommodate the situation. If employees in these categories are not sick, they may be supported to access flexible work arrangements (i.e. working from home) where possible Agencies should consider allocating work to employees that can be done at home.

In situations where this is not possible, employees may apply for special leave in accordance with Directive 5/17: Special Leave – which is granted  at the discretion of an agency chief executive and should be subject to regular review.

The speed of the development of the pandemic and the government response means that approaches to supporting employees are also likely over time to develop and change.

If an employee becomes unwell with a virus during a period of self-isolation, they may access leave in accordance with Directive 1/20: Employment Arrangements in the Event of a Health Pandemic.