COVID-19 frequently asked questions for public service HR practitioners 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 been 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 14 July 2020.

1. Returning to the workplace/flexible work/business continuity

Is there a current sector-wide direction for public service employees to return to their usual workplace or continue working from home where possible?

The Queensland Government has set a direction that up to 50% of the employees who had been working remotely during the pandemic should return to the workplace. However, the reality is there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to working arrangements across our public sector workforce during this time. Each Queensland Government agency is complying with relevant health directions from the Chief Health Officer and actioning their workforce-specific, scalable, business continuity plans. COVID-safe workplaces have been and remain a priority for all public service employees until the threat of COVID-19 is extinguished.

In line with latest health advice, and ensuring that current social distancing principles are satisfied, managers are working with staff to enact each agency’s return to the workplaces plan. A returning to the workplace guide has been developed to support agencies with this transition. For those not involved in critical front-line service delivery, this may mean continuing to work flexibly at least part of their working week, including working from home or staggering start times to manage the number of people in the workplace.

Employee health, safety and wellbeing is a priority. Any employees with concerns about their work arrangements are encouraged to talk to their manager 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. The Department of Housing and Public Works is supporting all agencies to implement arrangements for a COVID-safe working environment.

Can employees continue to work remotely?

Advice to Queensland Government agencies is that they should commence a transitioned return to the workplace, using the latest health advice. Employee safety is paramount so return to the workplace transition plans are likely to include a combination of flexible work arrangements and employee attendance at the usual workplace, depending on assessed risks. A returning to the workplace guide has been developed to support agencies develop their own return to COVID-safe workplaces plan.

Managers, agency HR and employees should discuss the work arrangements that support a safe return to the workplace, that best suit individual circumstances and that enable the critical public service work that supports the COVID-19 pandemic response. Transition work arrangements may include a blend of working in the office, working from home , other flexible work arrangements and staggered start and finish times.

A range of resources has been developed for agency HR professionals and managers within the public service to support employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. The resources 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 FAQs relating to COVID-19 workforce questions as they emerge.

As the COVID-19 pandemic situation evolves, so too does the government’s approach and each agency will continue to act using the latest health advice.

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

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 these situations sensitively. It is also important that we begin to return to the workplace and resume more usual business operations. Around 80% of the public sector workforce has remained in their usual workplace and safely continued to deliver essential government services during the pandemic.

Managers should seek 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 appropriate to the circumstances. If all other options have been explored, and there are no reasonable barriers to their attendance, agencies could consider issuing a lawful direction to the employee to attend the workplace. 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. Agency plans to return employees to their usual workplace will further support continuity of service delivery.

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 will be covered by worker’s compensation, including during breaks from their work if they sustain a work-related injury. An entitlement to workers’ 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.

Are employees entitled to reimbursement for excess costs pertaining to phone and internet access while working from home due to COVID-19?

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 may 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 that 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.

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.

2. Safe workplaces

How is physical distancing (also referred to as social distancing) being maintained in office environments?

Employees and employers have responsibilities in maintaining COVID-safe workplaces. All workplaces are being prepared to support physical distancing to limit the potential risk of spreading COVID-19. The Queensland Government Accommodation Office (QGAO) has prepared detailed floorplans for all departments that outlines how physical distancing can be maintained and the maximum occupancy based on the floorplan area to ensure 1 person per 4m2 is maintained.

QGAO and Department of Housing and Public Works have developed a returning to the workplace guide which provides advice about maintaining physical distancing in workplaces including lifts and end of trip facilities. Agencies can also refer to the physical distancing in the workplace fact sheet that provides a temporary occupancy model that supports physical distancing.

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.

What resources are available to help communicate physical distancing (also known as social distancing) in office environments?

QGAO and Department of Housing and Public Works have developed a series of posters, stickers and fact sheets which agencies can use to communicate physical distancing guidelines. These resources have been circulated and posted at key points across all government owned office buildings in common areas such as lunchrooms, lift wells and end of trip facilities

What is being done to keep workplaces clean?

Alcohol-based hand sanitisers have been installed on the ground floor and at major entry points, and hand washing posters are displayed in amenities in all government owned office buildings.

Using the existing cleaning contracts, additional cleaning in buildings is being undertaken for high contact areas such common areas, hot desks, agile workspaces and amenities, including lift buttons and door handles. Further cleaning protocols are being followed for any suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 within a building.

Currently, all government owned office buildings have a nightly cleaning service. The Queensland Government is using day cleaners (Monday to Friday) in all major office buildings to undertake enhanced cleaning during business hours.

Where cleaning and hygiene products have been provided, employees should use these to assist in maintaining high levels of hygiene at their workstations, and in shared areas such as hot desks and printing areas. Cleaning products such as multi-purpose spray and disinfectant wipes should be used, ensuring that rubbish is disposed of immediately after cleaning the area. Staff who have an allocated desk can access these cleaning products to regularly clean their desks, and staff using hot desks or agile workspaces should clean them before and after use, complementing the additional cleaning that is occurring under the existing cleaning contracts.

For further information refer to the returning to the workplace guide.

3. Confirmed or suspected cases of 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.

The employer is not required to notify the PHU if they are aware of an employee testing positive 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 and take preventative measures such as requiring close contacts of the positive case to self-quarantine.

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 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 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.

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 infection window. If there are people considered as close contacts, who are at a higher risk Queensland Health will follow up with them directly.

If 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.

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 Queensland Government has developed a fact sheet to provide recommendations for cleaning, disinfection and waste from the environment where people suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 infection may have been (PDF, 665 KB).

Each agency will address safety risks and cleaning arrangements in its plans for safely returning employees to the workplace.

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

An employee’s entitlement to workers’ 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.

4. Supporting vulnerable employees

What arrangements should be in place for vulnerable employees?

There are cohorts of employees across the sector who are likely to be considered vulnerable or high risk during the health pandemic. The guide to identifying and supporting vulnerable employees will assist employees and managers work together to support those who are at increased risk from COVID-19.

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 COVID-19.

On occasion, employees who have been assessed as a vulnerable person may indicate they wish to continue attending work and do not wish to self-quarantine at home. Employees and managers should discuss these circumstances with the safety and wellbeing of the employee in mind.

A risk assessment must be undertaken to determine whether it is appropriate for the employee to attend 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.

5. 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 including returning from overseas or an interstate hotspot they will be asked to self-quarantine at home or in a government approved location.

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.

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 by Queensland Health 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.

6. Leave arrangements

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

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.

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, 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 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 employee 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 and return to the workplace transition plans.

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

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.

7. Travel/employees returning from overseas/interstate

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

Public Health Direction – Border Restrictions (No.8) provides that a person who arrives in Queensland must, in specified circumstances, self-quarantine for 14 days if they have been outside Australia or in a COVID-19 hotspot in the last 14 days. The Chief Health Officer may give an exemption in certain circumstances.

Public service employees who are required to self-quarantine 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 and the circumstances of the request considered by the agency in determining whether to grant the request. Flexible work arrangements and access to special leave should be discussed with the employee’s manager or supervisor.

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

Do employees need a medical certificate following recovery from COVID-19 or at the end of self-quarantine? What evidence should employers seek for employees returning to work?

Following recovery from COVID-19, the employee’s healthcare provider will advise them when they are no longer infectious and can come out of isolation. There may be additional requirements for healthcare and aged care workers that will be governed by the Chief Health Officer’s health directives.

At the completion of an employee’s quarantine period, if they are well then a discharge form will be provided that allows them to leave their quarantine accommodation on the check-out day. The discharge form can be kept as proof that a 14-day quarantine period was served following international travel. The employee will then be free to go about normal activities within the current government restrictions, while practicing social distancing and good hygiene.

9. 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. 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 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.