Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Chronicle: June 2009 - September 2009

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Chronicle: June 2009 - September 2009

Article excerpt

June 2009

The impact of the recession and swine flu featured prominently in several media reports in June 2009.

The advent of swine flu raised the issue of payment to healthy workers if a business was forced to close down. The Dominion Post highlighted that the Government had sought legal advice on whether businesses, ordered to close because of swine flu, could be forced to pay healthy workers for the duration. Employers argued that there was a lack of clarity in the law and that it would be a financial burden if businesses were forced to continue paying staff while not working. In addition, there was a call for the Government to guarantee that employers would not be left to 'carry the can' for the pandemic. Union leaders also stated that workers should not be penalised either by using up sick days. A spokesperson for the Minister of Labour Kate Wilkinson said that while an employee had to be paid if ready and willing to work, but that a forced closedown of a business was a 'unique' situation.

The Dominion Post also reported that the increasing number of swine flu cases created a catalyst for employers to "get serious" about their employees' health. Barbara Buckett, an employment lawyer, stated that given that the World Health Organisation was considering declaring a pandemic, employers should look at their obligations and responsibilities to provide a safe work environment and be community sensitive. Ms Buckett went as far as saying that infectious staff could be deemed, for the purposes of health and safety law, hazards in the workplace and employers may be sued for loss and damage if the illness was spread from the workplace.

The Government announced a review of the Holidays Act in which the aim was to examine how to reduce the burden of compliance for business and to make it easier for both employers and employees. The review would be carried out by a working group made up of two business representatives, two union representatives and an independent chairperson. According the Dominion Post, Minister of Labour Kate Wilkinson said that she expected the outcome would be a change to the current legislation that would be "comprehensible and fair". Employer groups were quick to point out the faults of the current legislation, saying that any changes needed to reflect 'the real world' and that the current legislation was particularly confusing for certain sectors and occupational groups, such as hospitality and seasonal horticultural workers. One proposed provision was the ability to 'cash up' one week of leave which drew concerns from Council of Trade Unions' Vice-President Richard Wagstaff, who said that it could be abused by some employers. Employment lawyer Peter Cullen summed it up best when he said that it would be a challenge for the working group to satisfactorily address the diverse requirements of all industries and yet at the same time create a simpler piece of legislation.

A Private Members Bill, drafted by Labour MP Darien Fenton, aimed at setting minimum redundancy entitlements for redundant workers during the recession period failed to find favour with the Government. According to the Nelson Mail, the Minister of Labour Kate Wilkinson said that it was "not my priority to try to impose minimum statutory redundancy on businesses that are struggling enough to survive and to keep their staff. However, in the Sunday Star Times it was claimed that people were worse off in 2009 than during the 1987 share market crash as the Employment Contracts Act 1991 had reduced the number of employees on collective contracts which meant that fewer employees today were covered by redundancy agreements.

The Sunday Star Times also reported that victims of the recession were 'not only out of work and stressed' but they were also chasing bigger compensation payouts. An Auckland employment lawyer claimed that during this recessionary period, there was an increase in the number of employees taking stress-related personal grievance cases and also claiming larger amounts for hurt and humiliation. …

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