Directing employees to the workplace and COVID-19

Published 12 June 2020 | Updated 29 June 2023

Employers can require employees to work their normal hours and to work in the workplace as long as the direction is lawful and reasonable.

Directing employees to return to work or their workplace

States and territories may continue to have rules requiring people to work from home if they can. Employers need to stay up to date and comply with these requirements. If there is an enforceable government direction that applies, employers and employees have to follow it.

Employers can require (or direct) their employees to work their normal hours as long as the employee isn’t on approved leave and the requirement is lawful and reasonable. This includes requiring the employee to return to the workplace.

Where possible, employers should continue exploring alternative working arrangements in their workplace, particularly while social distancing rules or COVID-19 vaccination requirements apply. Examples include supporting different types of work from home arrangements or changing the patterns of work.

Employers also need to comply with their work health and safety and other legal obligations, as well as employees’ usual employment conditions.

When employees refuse to return to work or their workplace

An employee can’t refuse an employer’s direction to perform work if the direction is reasonable and in line with their employer’s legal obligations.

In some circumstances, employees may be able to refuse to return to work because of a reasonable concern about their health and safety or another legitimate reason.

Employers need to make sure they meet all workplace health and safety (WHS) obligations.

If an employee’s refusal to return to the workplace relates to COVID-19 vaccinations, we can provide general guidance on how vaccination issues interact with laws under the Fair Work Act. Learn more at COVID-19 vaccinations.

Safe Work Australia can provide information and guidance on WHS issues during COVID-19. This includes about COVID-19 vaccinations. Get industry specific advice on what WHS measures to keep a workplace healthy and safe at Safe Work Australia – COVID-19 information for workplaces.

If you have concerns or questions about WHS issues and you can’t resolve them in the workplace, you can contact your local body. Each state and territory has a WHS body that regulates and investigates breaches of WHS laws. Contact your state or territory body.

When an employee doesn’t comply with a direction

Employers and employees are encouraged to work together to manage the return to the workplace.

If an employee has concerns about the safety of the workplace, they should raise their concerns with their employer as soon as possible.

Employers should consider sharing information about any steps they’ve taken to ensure a safe workplace and to help manage employee concerns.

If an employee doesn’t comply with their employer’s requirement to return to work or their usual workplace, their employer can take disciplinary action. In some circumstances, this could include termination of employment. Employers need to make sure they comply with the general protections and unfair dismissal obligations in the Fair Work Act.

More information:

Alternative work arrangements when caring for a child

If an employee can’t return to the workplace because they need to care for a child whose school or childcare centre has closed, they should come to an arrangement with their employer. This could include requesting to work from home or taking some form of leave, such as annual leave or long service leave. Normal leave application processes apply.

Employees also have the option to request flexible work arrangements in certain circumstances. For more information, see Flexible working arrangements.

If an employee doesn't come to an arrangement to work from home with their employer, or doesn’t use paid leave, then they aren’t entitled to be paid.

Employees who need to care for a sick child can take carer’s leave (paid or unpaid). If a full-time or part-time employee has no paid carer’s leave left they can request to take unpaid carer’s leave. Unpaid carer’s leave is also available to casual employees, who are entitled to 2 days of leave per occasion. Learn more at Sick and carer’s leave.

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