The COVID disaster payment: what do employers need to know?

June 8, 2021
FCB Workplace Law

In the wake of the news about the extended Melbourne lockdown came a glimmer of hope for the thousands of Australians whose income has been affected by the latest COVID-19 outbreak as well as those fearing for the short-term future: a temporary COVID disaster payment.

Last week, the Federal Government announced immediate but temporary financial assistance to workers who live or work in a Commonwealth-declared hotspot and lose income as a result of being unable to attend work due to state-imposed restrictions in excess of one week. The assistance is currently in the form of a single payment of $325 if the worker has ‘lost’ less than 20 hours of work, and $500 for 20 or more hours.

There are a number of requirements an employee must meet to be eligible for this payment, including but not limited to that they must be an Australian citizen, permanent resident or holder of an eligible working visa, must not have liquid assets of more than $10,000, and must not already be receiving other identified payments from Services Australia (formerly Centrelink).

But unlike the JobKeeper Scheme, the COVID disaster payment will be paid to workers directly rather than through their employers, despite eligibility being assessed on their employment circumstances.

As such, businesses do not need to assess or manage employee eligibility, and to avoid giving incorrect advice, we recommend that if you are approached by any of your employees about the payment, that you refer them to Services Australia’s website.

Because applications for the payment are unable to be made until Tuesday 8 June 2021, it is not currently clear what, if any, supporting evidence will be required. However, due to the eligibility requirements for the assistance, it is possible that employers may receive employee requests for the following information over the coming week:

  • Confirmation of employment;
  • Confirmation of the employee’s home or work location;
  • The employee’s average or ordinary hours of work;
  • Details of the reduction in their hours of work or stand down; and/or
  • Leave balances.

Depending on the information requested, such requests may trigger an employer’s obligations to provide employee records under the Fair Work Regulations 2009 (Cth). Businesses should be careful when dealing with requests to ensure that they are responding with appropriate timeliness, are not breaching any privacy or confidentiality obligations, and are providing accurate and up-to-date information as it may be relied on by the Government to assess worker eligibility.

Employers should not rely on the availability of this financial assistance to justify unlawful stand downs or reduction in hours of work. Whether you are able to implement such actions depends on the employee’s terms and conditions of employment, and the requirements of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

The COVID disaster payment is a welcome announcement but is unlikely to remedy the full impacts of Melbourne’s fourth lockdown, and we will keep our fingers crossed for the full re-opening of the city in the coming days.

Please note that due to the urgent implementation of this assistance, the rules and processes of the COVID disaster payment may still be subject to change, and we recommend you check with Services Australia for the most up-to-date information about the payment here.

For more information on employer rights and obligations during COVID-19 lockdowns, please contact the team at FCB Group.