Monday, 7 December 2020

A COVID-19 Holiday Season: COVID-Safe Considerations for your End of Year Event

2020 has brought with it unprecedented challenges for employers, and the broader community.  Not one person has been left untouched by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought extra complexity for employers with additional considerations that need to be kept in mind in bringing 2020 to a close.  In this article, we look at COVID-Safe considerations employers should have in relation to their end of year celebrations.

End of Year Celebrations – COVID-19 Risks

A work sponsored end of year event is in the course of employment and is part of the employment relationship.  As such, employers’ legal obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment for all employees as far as reasonably practicable extends to end of year celebrations.

End of year workplace celebrations are typically a common occurrence in December, with employers seeking to celebrate a successful year with their staff and thank them for their service.   However, staff are usually high spirited at end of year celebrations and often drinking alcoholic beverages, creating a number of legal risks for employers including sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying and violence, and WorkCover claims.

Prevention is always better than cure! Therefore in the lead up to any work related event, employers should remind their staff of appropriate behaviour at the event and ensure their business has appropriate workplace policies in place including those dealing with standards of conduct, consumption of alcohol at work events, discrimination, harassment and bullying, and relevantly, in respect to COVID-19. Further, representatives of management should be designated to supervise behaviour at any end of year functions, to ensure staff are complying with these directions (and, of course, lead by example!)

This year, end of year events will likely look very different to previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers may be liable if staff contract COVID-19 from an end of year event, and COVID-19 infections could result in employees making WorkCover Claims.  As such, employers should:

(1) be aware of COVID-19 Restrictions which apply in your location; and

(2) take and document reasonable precautions to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

COVID-19 Restrictions

For national employers, different State-based restrictions and requirements are in place in respect to public gatherings and other events, depending on where they are held and whether they are inside, outside or, for example, at a function centre.

Further, venues might have their own restrictions in place which could impact on your event.

It is therefore important that employers are aware of and comply with any COVID-19 restrictions in respect to individual events. Further information on these restrictions can be accessed from the relevant government department websites in your state or territory.

If these restrictions make a restaurant or indoor venue seem unappealing for your end of year event, it may be worth considering having picnics or other outdoor events to celebrate the end of year, particularly evidence has shown there is a lower transmission risk of COVID-19 outdoors. Another option would be to host a virtual end of year celebration if your staff are not experiencing “zoom fatigue” or having separate events for different groups of employees or departments.

COVID-Safe Behaviour

As foreshadowed above, employers should also take and document reasonable precautions to avoid the spread of COVID-19 at their end of year celebration.  This includes ensuring COVID Safe measures exist at the end of year function and encouraging and supervising COVID-Safe behaviour at the end of year event.

Prior to your event, you should remind staff of the following COVID-Safe Behaviour that is expected at your event and to stay home if they are feeling unwell. Further considerations or restrictions you may wish to enforce and remind staff about include physical distancing, mask wearing if required in your location, monitoring intoxication of attendees and, of course, good hygiene.

Employers should keep a separate record of attendance for contact tracing in the unlikely event of a COVID-19 outbreak at your event.   While the venue hosting your event may keep an attendance record, we recommend employers keep a separate record.

Other Considerations

End of year events should typically be voluntary, however if you have clients/customers, suppliers or other business contacts attending your end of year event you may want to have staff present to represent your business. However, it is important to bear in mind that it can be harder to control behaviour of third parties and employees may feel uncomfortable in large group settings and therefore may not want to attend an end of year event due to safety concerns. In this case, employers should genuinely consider staff safety concerns and try to make reasonable accommodations so that everyone can feel safe and welcome at an end of year event, and possibly restricting invitations to staff only.

Employers may also wish to suggest staff arrange a family member or friend drop them off and pick them up from an end of year event, or offer transport options such as taxis, Uber or carpooling where possible to limit people having to use public transport which has a higher COVID-19 transmission risk.

Finally, your end of year event needs to be planned early.  Bookings will likely be necessary given density maximums at venues, and it is advisable to check with venues as to their COVID-Safe practices before confirming on a venue to host your event.

The lead up to Christmas can be a challenging time for employers navigating the legal responsibilities they have to their staff and customers, however with proper planning and a sensible approach, employers can minimise their risk, and have a successful end to 2020.

This article was produced by HR Legal. It is intended to provide general information only in summary format on legal issues. It does not constitute legal advice, and should not be relied on as such.