Workers v bosses: War brewing over back to work orders

Lawyers have warned that employers face being sued if they force reluctant workers back and they catch COVID at the office or during their commute.Employment law expert George Haros said employers and staff were “on a collision course” as workers were ­ordered back to the workplace. Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief Paul Guerra said “escalated” return-to-work disputes would likely wind up before the Fair Work Commission.Under current state government rules, companies can’t force employees back to the ­office “if it is reasonably practical for them to work from home or another location”.Larry Dent, partner at Arnold Thomas and Becker, said employers could be hit with lawsuits if workers were forced back to work and caught COVID.

“In such circumstances, the employer may well have breached its duty of care to the worker by exposing the worker to such a risk,” he said. “Depending on the severity of the illness suffered by the worker, the employer could be open to paying substantial compensation.”Mr Dent said what was considered “lawful and reasonable” in one workplace was different in another. His law firm is leading a ­Supreme Court class action against former hotel quarantine security firms, claiming they were responsible for Victoria’s brutal second coronavirus wave and scores of nursing home deaths.Trades Hall secretary Luke Hilakari said exemptions could be needed for ­“vulnerable” workers, for whom the risk of catching COVID by returning to the worksite posed a serious health threat.Mr Guerra said businesses would talk with their employees over the coming months about work arrangements.He said there was a high likelihood many would settle on a “blended” mix of working from home and the office.“It is in the interests of both employers and employees to get the balance right and what we have seen so far is both parties’ enthusiasm to come up with workable return-to-work plans,” he said.“There will need to be some give and take to make it work.“Most workplaces are looking for ways to make the new blended arrangement a permanent change. We are seeing businesses that are able to operate remotely coming to the table in good faith and permitting a hybrid approach where employees work from home and the office.”
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