Employers call for more clarity for workplaces amid Omicron threat

What should employers expect from the updated guidelines?

Employers call for more clarity for workplaces amid Omicron threat

BusinessNZ has called on the government to provide more clarity ahead of the arrival of the Omicron variant in New Zealand, stressing that workplaces would need support if a significant number of its workforce were made to isolate. The Omicron variant has wreaked havoc in workplaces across the glove, placing further burden on HR leaders to plug the labour shortage.

Kirk Hope, Business NZ chief executive, said that if the Omicron is "as widespread as it has been in other parts of the world," then it could lead to large numbers of people isolating in a short period of time.

To this effect, Hope called on the government to provide definitions for "close" and "casual" contacts. The official stressed that a key issue for businesses would be about who needs to isolate and for how long do they need to stay isolated.

According to Hope, businesses would also need some form of support if a large portion of its workforce would need to get isolated due to Omicron. He recommended the widespread use of rapid antigen tests, which he said could help reduce the risk in offices. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern previously said the arrival of the Omicron variant in New Zealand was a matter of ‘when and not if’, adding that if the COVID-19 strain enters the community, then the whole country escalates to a stricter ‘red’ level in terms of restrictions.

Hope welcomed the move, as the ‘red’ alert level would still allow businesses to operate despite an outbreak. The announcement also gave businesses a head start in planning for curb escalations, such as adjusting shifts and creating workforce separations to keep operations running.

Read more: BusinessNZ turns down government offer on FPAs

Isolation extended

Amid Hope’s request for clarity, the New Zealand government announced on Friday extended in the meantime the isolation periods for all COVID-19 community cases as precautionary measures for the Omicron variant. Isolation time for all COVID-19 community cases is extended to 14 days from the previous 10 days. For close contacts in the community, isolation period is also expanded for 10 days from the previous seven.

"Isolation periods for cases and close contacts remain under review and are planned to change as part of the response to an Omicron community outbreak," the Ministry of Health said.  

The changes in isolation period have taken effect immediately, with the government stressing that their priority is stamping out early any Omicron cases in the community.

What should HR plan for in 2022?

With the Health Ministry hinting at future changes in isolation policies once Omicron enters the community, it’s possible that they could be reduced or amended with time. Take the situation at retail giant Amazon, for instance, where they cut down isolation time for employees from 10 days to seven. The move is in accordance with the announcement of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which also reduced isolation time for COVID-positive individuals to five days from the initial 10.

As of yet, it’s difficult to know what measures will come in, when they’ll be enacted, or how they’ll impact individual workplaces. For HR leader, it’s important to keep up to date with any emerging information – and always act in accordance with government guidelines.

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