Guide to identifying and supporting vulnerable employees (COVID-19)

Queensland public servants do important work and should be supported to work safely as they deliver essential services to Queenslanders during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

This guide will help:

  • employees identify if they are at high risk from the effects of COVID-19 due to existing health conditions and/or their personal circumstances
  • managers support employees to work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While defining levels of vulnerability to COVID-19 is difficult given it is such a new illness, this information is intended to serve as a broad guide for employees and managers. It can also be used to help guide conversations and develop support strategies.

This guide is based on Queensland Health guidelines with acknowledgement to Metro North Hospital and Health Service and the Department of Health for their foundation content. Queensland Health employees should refer to the Department of Health for guidelines applicable to them. This content is valid as at 23 June 2020 and will be updated as new information becomes available.

1. Employees considered as vulnerable

An employee may be considered as a vulnerable person to COVID-19 if they:

  • are 70 years or older
  • are 65 years or older with chronic medical conditions
  • are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person who is 50 years or older with one or more chronic medical conditions
  • are significantly immunocompromised or taking immunosuppression therapy
  • have a medical condition and their doctor has advised in writing that the medical condition places them at increased risk and they require consequential work adjustments

2. Chronic medical conditions, immune system conditions and medical treatments that place a person at increased risk

Current advice from the Department of Health indicates that the following conditions or treatments may place an employee at greater risk from COVID-19 if they are aged over 65 or are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person aged over 50:

  • chronic renal failure
  • coronary heart disease or congestive heart failure
  • chronic lung disease including severe asthma (for which frequent medical consultations or the use of multiple medications is required), cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, suppurative lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or chronic emphysema
  • poorly controlled diabetes
  • poorly controlled hypertension.

An employee may be at increased risk at any age if their immune system is significantly weakened:

  • due to haemotologic neoplasms such as leukaemias, lymphomas and myelodysplastic syndromes
  • post solid organ transplant, and are on immune-suppressive therapy
  • post transplant, if the employee has had an haemotopoietic stem cell transplant in the past 24 months or are on treatment for graft versus host disease (GVHD)
  • by primary or acquired immunodeficiency including HIV infection
  • by having chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

An employee may also be at increased risk if they take any biological disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (bDMARD) or any of the following immunosuppressive drugs:

  • azathioprine, more than 3mg per kg per day
  • 6-mercaptopurine, more than 1.5mg per kg per day
  • methotrexate, more than 0.4mg per kg per week
  • high-dose corticosteroids (20mg or more of prednisone per day or equivalent) for 14 days or more
  • tacrolimus
  • cyclosporine
  • cyclophosphamide
  • mycophenolate
  • any combination of these or other DMARDs.

If you think you, or one of your employees may be vulnerable, you can use the employees in vulnerable groups form (DOCX, 361 KB) to understand personal situations and explore together any work or workplace adjustments that may be needed.

Employees who believe they might be considered vulnerable should always discuss their situation with their manager in the first instance.

3. Actions to take if an employee is considered a vulnerable person

Supporting vulnerable employees may create challenges in a work context, and requires employees and managers to work together to create solutions to address these challenges. The safety and wellbeing of all employees remains paramount during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

If an employee considers that they meet the definition of a vulnerable person:

  • they should discuss this with their manager and provide evidence such as a medical certificate or other reasonable information as requested. A manager may also draw on their existing knowledge of an employee’s health when considering how to support a vulnerable employee, rather than requesting new medical information be provided
  • the employee and manager should work together to assess any risks and develop actions to address those risks
  • risks need to be assessed and mitigated with consideration of the characteristics of the employee, the workplace and the work being undertaken by the employee.

If there are risks to the employee remaining in their current role in the workplace that cannot be mitigated, temporary short term and reasonable adjustments to support the employee should be discussed and documented using the employees in vulnerable groups form (DOCX, 361 KB).

Temporary adjustments to mitigate risks may include:

  • remote working, including working from home, within the employee’s current role – this should be the first option considered and provided where possible
  • allocating work that can be undertaken remotely, that may not necessarily relate to an employee’s own role, but is in line with their skill set, experience and existing level
  • deployment to an alternate, non-customer contact role
  • alternative hours, or patterns of work
  • working from another location
  • deployment to another role within the agency
  • mobilisation to another role in an alternate public sector agency.

All managers must support employees to continue to work wherever possible in a way that balances the:

  • service delivery requirements of the agency or the broader public service
  • employee’s continued health, safety and wellbeing.

Where risks to vulnerable employees cannot be mitigated in the workplace and the employee cannot work from home, the employee may apply for special leave in accordance with Directive 5/17: Special Leave. This leave is granted at the discretion of an agency chief executive and should only be considered once all other options are exhausted. Employees should not be required to access their own leave whilst risk mitigation factors or alternative work locations are considered.  

The granting of special leave should include a review period that the agency considers appropriate, for example: an initial 14-day review period of special leave may be suitable as this aligns with the current self-isolation requirements for people who have come into contact with COVID-19 or are returning to Australian from overseas or interstate.

An employee granted special leave should also be informed that they should remain available as they may be required to undertake flexible work at a point where appropriate work can be identified.

The employee must inform their manager if their circumstances change. For example, if the employee becomes sick or is required to provide care for an unwell family member, the employee should be placed on either sick or special pandemic leave.

Managers must regularly review the agreed upon arrangements to ensure they continue to fit the employee’s circumstances and support the ongoing health and safety of the employee.

4. Vulnerable employees who wish to remain in the workplace

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.

Apparent risks should be identified, and mitigating strategies agreed upon, documented and put in place to overcome any risk there may be to the employee. An example of this could include moving a vulnerable employee from a service centre role with face-to-face customer interactions to a role within a customer service call centre. When identifying mitigating strategies, the manager and employee should also take into account factors such as whether there will be any increased risks to the employee through transport options if alternative work locations are being considered.

The employees in vulnerable groups form (DOCX, 361 KB) will assist to identify risks and agree upon strategies to mitigate these.

5. Employees who live with or care for a vulnerable person

There may be circumstances where employees are not considered vulnerable, but their personal circumstances mean that they live with or care for someone is who considered vulnerable, and there is medical advice that the employee attending work presents a higher risk to the vulnerable person.

In these circumstances, the employee and manager should work together to identify and mitigating risks, following a similar approach to what should occur when an employee who considers themselves vulnerable. The manager and employee should also take into account factors such as whether there will be any increased risks through transport options if alternative work locations are being considered.

If risks cannot be mitigated by implementing strategies such as working from home or another location or removing face to face customer interactions from the employee, the employee may apply for special leave in accordance with Directive 5/17: Special Leave.

This leave is granted at the discretion of an agency chief executive and should only be considered once all other options are exhausted. The granting of special leave should include a review period that the agency considers appropriate, for example: an initial 14-day review period of special leave may be suitable as this aligns with the current self-isolation requirements for people who have come into contact with COVID-19 or are returning to Australian from overseas or interstate.

An employee granted special leave should also be informed that they should remain available as they may be required to undertake flexible work at a point where appropriate work can be identified. As the pandemic evolves, there may be increased opportunities for public service employees to undertake work from their home.

6. Employees who don’t meet the definition of a vulnerable person but are concerned about working in their current role

An employee may not meet the definition of a vulnerable person, but may still have concerns about their current work due to their age, a pre-existing medical condition or other personal circumstances. Employees are encouraged to speak to their manager about their circumstances.

Where possible, the manager should seek to implement temporary, short term and reasonable adjustments such as removing the employee from high risk work areas, deploying the employee to undertake alternative duties or supporting the employee to work from home or an alternative work location. Where alternative work arrangements are not possible, the employee may consider accessing available leave arrangements. 

7. Pregnant employees

Queensland Health have advised that currently there is insufficient evidence to guide definitive workplace practice and highlight specific risks during pregnancy. As such a thorough work environment assessment of the employee’s circumstances should be undertaken.

Whilst pregnant women do not appear to be more severely affected by the COVID-19 than the general population, the anxiety and subsequent stress regarding this pandemic may impact not only the mother but also the baby, and therefore pregnant staff should be supported in their health and work decisions.

Queensland Health advise that an assessment should be undertaken of a pregnant employee’s work environment (particularly the risk associated with COVID-19 viral infections). Queensland Health has further recommended that if an employee is 28 weeks pregnant or more, consideration should be given to allowing the employee to work from home or deploying to a role with lower risk of exposure. If risks cannot be mitigated by implementing strategies such as working from home or another location or removing face to face customer interactions from the employee, the employee may apply for special leave in accordance with Directive 5/17: Special Leave.

8. Use of information

The information an employee is requested to provide will be used during the response to COVID-19 and only to manage employee safety and wellbeing in accordance with work health and safety (WHS) obligations.

Providing personal information to mitigate risks to an employee’s health and safety at work, and the health and safety of others (such as co-workers and patients), ensures everybody can achieve the goal of maintaining a safe work environment for all.

9. Additional resources

10. Process

  1. Employee advises their manager that they have assessed themselves to be vulnerable person, and provides medical certification of this where necessary.
  2. Employee and manager discuss and agree upon mitigating strategies to ensure employee's safety and wellbeing. Discussion is documented and a copy kept by both the manager and employee.
  3. Employee and manage complete the Employee in vulnerable groups form (DOCX, 361 KB), including information on the mitigating strategies to be implemented.
  4. Manage monitors the arrangement by regularly checking in with the employee to ensure ongoing safety and wellbeing and that the arrangements continue to be suitable.