Restarting, restructuring and rehiring as we move into 2021

With many states now achieving longer periods without a community transmission of coronavirus, and positive reports on the development of potential vaccines, organisations should start thinking about the considerations for their people strategy they may need to take into account as we move into 2021. 

For example, the Victorian state government has flagged a gradual return to workplaces beginning November, 30, with 25 percent of staff allowed to be on site at a time. In other states where restrictions were not as severe, a larger number of employees have already been permitted to return to the workplace. 

In addition, some organisations are utilising JobKeeper, which will finish either in January or late March depending on their circumstances. Other organisations that are known as ‘legacy employers’, have been allowed some of the temporary flexibilities under the Fair Work Act (FWA), whilst others are only covered by the FWA.

Though March 28 may seem like a long time away, in reality it only leaves organisations with roughly two months to plan, consult and execute their people strategy once they return from the summer break. 

With all these different drivers in mind, here are some important considerations around restarting, restructuring and rehiring to start acting on now.

Restarting 

One of your first points to examine will be staff returning to the workplace. Aside from the workplace health and safety matters involved, it raises many other questions and business considerations too: does this provide an opportunity to scale down office costs? Do you need to consult? Do you have proper flexible work policies and procedures? If you plan on a portion of your employees still working from home (WFH), you may need to think about the long-term implications of this on your office culture. For example, in the office there is the opportunity for mentoring, training on the job and cooperation, whereas someone WFH may become more like an external consultant and not necessarily be part of the culture of the organisation.

In addition, the number of WFH claims received by the national work health and safety authority Comcare was 25 for the March – May period, compared to zero during the same period in the year before. The majority of the claims (88%) are related to injury or physical disease. Regardless of the work environment, employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of workers, and workers have obligations to follow the organisation’s safe work policies and procedures, notifying their employer of any hazards or potential risks.

Well drafted and well communicated employment contracts and company policies and procedures are crucial for ensuring employees have a clear understanding of expectations, especially in the context of significant changes, such as more long-term WFH arrangements. Any uncertainty as to expectations and proper procedure will only be intensified while employees are working remotely, due to the lack of face-to-face contact and communication.

All of these potential scenarios and risks make it important for businesses to take the time now to review their employment contracts and policies to ensure they are still fit for purpose.

Restructuring

When it comes to restructuring, rightsizing or redundancies, it is important to understand what your flexibilities, obligations and tools are during and after JobKeeper, as a legacy employer or as a ‘normal’ employer covered by the FWA. Check the applicable Awards to understand if there are consulting obligations under those Awards. 

Do not forget to explore the exemption from Fringe Benefits Tax (FBT) for employer-provided retraining and reskilling, for employees who are redeployed to a different role in the business. 

Rehiring

If you need extra staff, do you rehire ex-employees you may have made redundant during the height of the pandemic? And what employment law risks come with rehiring? If you choose to hire new employees, do you offer them temporary employment? If so, as a casual or a maximum term contract instead? What is the current situation on casual employment? These are just some of the questions surrounding rehiring that you will need to ask yourself.

It is important to note that IR Minister Christian Porter has planned to introduce IR legislation to Parliament before Christmas, which would address the uncertainty around the meaning of casual employment. This could potentially have a big impact on the so-called permanent casual workers. 

Then there is the JobMaker scheme and how it affects new hires in different age groups. Employers that hire people aged 16-29 within the next 12 months will receive $200 per week towards that employee’s wages. New hires aged 30-35 will be subsidised with $100 per week. Restart offers a $10,000 wage subsidy incentive for employers who hire and retain employees over 50 years of age, who work for at least 30 hours per week.

A good alternative in these uncertain times is to use an agency for a contingent workforce as part of your risk mitigation strategy. Since they are officially the employer, they take on all the risks associated with employment.  

Assistance

It is not an overstatement to say that there are more considerations and workplace relations matters for employers to navigate than ever before, due to the significant business and economic uncertainty in the current environment. 

Not every organisation will have in-house resources to deal with each of these matters and ensure your organisation is compliant with new legislation. For this reason, it can be beneficial to seek expert advice to assist with these matters and ensure your business is protected. Bayside Group’s dedicated Workplace Relations team can assist you in all of these areas, and help to make sure that you are creating strong foundations for your organisation moving into 2021. Contact our Workplace Relations team today for a confidential discussion.