Solutions and support for growers to keep farming through the Coronavirus pandemic

Growcom has been working at state and federal levels to progress solutions to the challenges posed by COVID-19 (coronavirus).

As this crisis evolves and industry faces new challenges, so too may the advice change. Growcom encourages all growers to refer back to the source of information to ensure you are acting on the most up-to-date advice.

On this page you will find information about:

NEW MEASURES EXPLAINED

Growcom and Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (QDAF) recently held a webinar to take growers through the new measures introduced for agribusiness and commercial fisheries as well as accommodation and transport providers.

The webinar talks through all aspects including health plans, interstate quarantine requirements, workplace health and safety and more, and is followed by a Question and Answers session at the end.

You can watch the webinar here

NOVEL CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19)

COVID-19 novel coronavirus is a new strain of coronavirus affecting humans. As a new disease, there is presently no immunity to COVID-19 in the community. As such, infection spreads very quickly. Those most at risk include people who have compromised immune systems or chronic illnesses, the elderly, and the very young.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can range from mild to severe. Common symptoms reported in identified cases of COVID-19 include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

According to the Department of Health, the virus is spread from ‘person-to-person’ contact through:

  • Close contact with an infectious person (including in the 24 hours before they start showing symptoms).
  • Contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze.
  • Touching objects or surfaces that have cough or sneeze droplets from an infected person and then touching your mouth or face.

For more information, please refer to the Queensland Government website.

NEW MEASURES TO HELP AGRIBUSINESS ACCESS SEASONAL WORKERS

With effect from 12:01am Tuesday 5 May 2020, the Queensland Government introduced new measures to help agribusiness and commercial fisheries access seasonal workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

New obligations for seasonal workers

There are new requirements and obligations for seasonal workers both as they enter into Queensland, and also move within Queensland for new work.

A seasonal worker can be:

  • a person coming from overseas to travel and work temporarily in Australia; or
  • an Australian resident seeking seasonal work either locally or across the country.

Entering into Queensland 

Workers are still able to enter Queensland for the purpose of employment in agriculture. To do so, they will require the following documentation:

If they have come from a declared COVID-19 hotspot, they must also self-quarantine for 14 days before starting their employment, either in Queensland upon arrival or prior to entry so long as this is substantiated by an interstate health authority.

Moving within Queensland

Seasonal workers must not travel within Queensland without first obtaining employment and confirming appropriate accommodation.

When moving to a new area, seasonal workers must keep a record of their work and residence in the last 14 days.

Further detail developed specifically for seasonal workers can be found HERE.

New obligations for employers of seasonal workers

If you are employing seasonal workers from outside Queensland, or any workers who are not staying in their permanent residence, you now must have a workplace health management plan. This plan must also be submitted to covid.plans@health.qld.gov.au.

You must also request and keep a record of your employee’s work history and accommodation details for the 14 days before commencing work with you, including self-quarantine compliance if relevant.

As with all workplace health and safety requirements, the safety of all workers on your property ultimately sits with you. So those growers contracting a labour hire company to source seasonal workers will still need a workplace health management plan. Though some parts of the plan, like keeping a record of a worker’s past employment and accommodation will be the responsibility of the labour hire company.

To manage the risk of exposure of COVID-19 in your workplace you should check all employees for the presence of COVID-19 symptoms every day prior to the start of each shift, and enforce social distancing rules and increased personal hygiene such as frequent hand washing.

Employers must keep daily records of each worker’s presence or absence of COVID-19 symptoms.

For further information on these new obligations for employers, including health management plans, recording employment and travel history, and the health status of employees please click here.

QUEENSLAND BORDER CLOSURE

To slow the spread of COVID-19 the Queensland Government has implemented restricted entry to Queensland.

Who is allowed to enter Queensland (who is considered an exempt person)?’

Exempt people are those living outside of Queensland who provide critical services to Queensland:

  • national/state security
  • essential health services
  • emergency services
  • transport of goods or freight by land, sea or air, including food
  • critical maintenance/repair to critical infrastructure in Queensland
  • construction, mining, energy, agribusinesses
  • federal, state or local government workers or contractors who are required to enter to Queensland to work

Workers are still able to enter Queensland from interstate, so long as they satisfy conditions including possession of an entry pass, proof of employment, accommodation, and a record of their past work and residence for 14 days. Their employers will need to have a health plan in place.

Queensland entry pass

All agricultural workers will need to apply online for an entry pass. Workers in heavy vehicles carrying freight or goods (including food) do not have to apply for an entry pass.

To apply for an entry pass visit: www.qld.gov.au/border-pass

Evidence of employment in Queensland

Any employees needing to cross the border into Queensland will need to provide evidence at border checkpoints of who they are working for and confirming they are entering Queensland to go directly to work. You can download a template letter.

WORKPLACE HEALTH AND SAFETY

What can employers do to keep workers safe and limit the spread of COVID-19?

Together with the agricultural industries and Queensland Health, Safe Food Production Queensland (Safe Food) has developed a guideline for agricultural, horticultural, and meat and livestock processing businesses to help them understand the risks of COVID-19 to their workforce, and describe the measures that can be implemented when any of these risks are realised.

The guideline:

  • Provides clear definitions of the different categories for workers exposed to COVID-19
  • Provides guidance on how to estimate the risk from each of those workers
  • Outlines mitigating actions that can be implemented in the event of workers being exposed to COVID-19 and the proactive measures that should be taken to protect the workforce and manage the risk into the future, which can be used to inform risk assessment decisions.

This Guideline should be used in conjunction with the Checklist for Reducing Workforce Impact from COVID-19. The Checklist helps production facilities, farms and packing sheds assess their risk management measures for COVID-19.

Download the guide and checklist here.

Using the Guideline and Checklist for Reducing Workforce Impact from COVID-19 Growcom has developed a COVID-19 Work Health and Safety Plan, which includes a variety of additional resources to assist you. These resources will help, farms and packing sheds assess their risk management measures for COVID-19.

Please remember this is a rapidly changing situation and the above documents will be reviewed on a regular basis and updated as required.

Workplace Health Plan

Agricultural businesses are required by the Queensland Chief Medical Officer to complete and submit a Health Plan that sets out basic hygiene and cleaning requirements to address the spread of COVID-19.

An authorised health and safety officer from your business will be required to confirm that the business has implemented the requirements in the plan on all your worksites. Once you have implemented the requirements and executed the plan it must be returned to Queensland Health.

Download the Health Plan template from the Queensland Health website.

Submitting your Health Plan

Your Health Plan needs to be submitted to Queensland Health via the central email: covid.plans@health.qld.gov.au

Personal Disclosure Statement

To help comply with the Health Plan employers may wish to request that employees complete a Personal Disclosure Statement outlining any travel they have had and an undertaking to disclose any relevant information regarding their personal exposure to COVID-19. You can download a template PDS.

Record keeping templates for workplace health management plans

The Queensland Government has developed the following record keeping templates to assist agribusinesses to maintain records of activities during COVID-19.

Workplace resources 

Safe Work Australia have collated a range of downloadable resources for use in the workplace.

The Queensland Government has also had a number of these resources translated.

Growcom has prepared a COVID-19 Security Entry Sign for growers to print out and place at the entry to their farms.

If a worker has a SUSPECTED or CONFIRMED case of COVID-19

Safe Work Australia has prepared a downloadable factsheet.

If your worker is confirmed to have COVID-19 you need to follow the health advice from the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080 or your state or territory helpline.

However, if you know a worker is confirmed to have the COVID-19 virus, you must make sure the worker does not return to work while they are infectious.

If you notice a worker showing other signs they may be unwell (eg. frequent coughing) and you think they should not be at work, you should follow your usual workplace policies and procedures. This may include directing the worker to go home. If you decide to require workers to stay away from work, you may still be obliged to pay them.

Generally, you must:

  • Identify the hazards
  • Assess the risks
  • Control the risks
  • Review the control measures
  • Consult with workers and other duty holders.

For more information please refer to Safe Work Australia website.

WorkCover and COVID-19

WorkCover Queensland has produced FAQs for workers, employers and medical providers to help answer any questions you may have relating to workers’ compensation and COVID-19.

WorkCover Queensland has advised that claims for COVID-19 will be assessed similarly to how they assess other statutory claims for viral diseases.

There would need to be:

  • Testing to confirm the worker has the virus.
  • Confirmation that the worker was exposed to another person in the workplace who has also was confirmed to have the virus.
  • Satisfaction that, on the balance of probabilities, the virus was contracted in the course of their employment and that employment was a significant contributing factor to the virus diagnosis.

Any new claims in relation to COVID-19 will be determined and managed by a centralised team in line with the current legislation. WorkCover will work with workers, employers and treating providers to determine how workers have contracted COVID-19 and make decisions in accordance with the Act.

If an employee is required to go into quarantine will WorkCover pay the employees’ wages?

WorkCover will not cover wages during quarantine unless:

  • There is diagnosis of COVID-19.
  • The exposure has been confirmed in connection with work.
  • There is an accepted workers’ compensation claim.

Obtaining PPE and other vital materials and supplies

Queensland businesses having difficulty obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE) or other vital materials and supplies can submit a request online via the Manufacturer’s Supply Matching Request form.

RIGHTS AND OBLIGATIONS AS AN EMPLOYER

Employers should refer to the Fair Work Ombudsman website to understand your rights and obligations as an employer.

COVID-19 changes to the Horticulture Award

At the initiation of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) a new schedule will be inserted into 99 modern awards including the Horticulture Award 2010. The new schedule provides for additional entitlements as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new addition will provide an entitlement to:

  • Unpaid “pandemic” leave and
  • The flexibility to take annual leave at half pay

These variations will operate from 8 April 2020 until 30 June 2020, but may be extended.

The schedule to be inserted into the Horticulture Award is as follows:

Schedule X—Additional measures during the COVID-19 pandemic

X.1        Subject to clauses X.2.1.(d) and X.2.2(c), Schedule X operates from 8 April 2020 until 30 June 2020. The period of operation can be extended on application.

X.2        During the operation of Schedule X, the following provisions apply:

X.2.1 Unpaid pandemic leave

a) Subject to clauses X.2.1(b), (c) and (d), any employee is entitled to take up to 2 weeks’ unpaid leave if the employee is required, by government or medical authorities or acting on the advice of a medical practitioner, to self-isolate and is consequently prevented from working, or is otherwise prevented from working by measures taken by government or medical authorities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
b) The employee must give their employer notice of the taking of leave under clause X.2.1(a) and of the reason the employee requires the leave, as soon as practicable (which may be a time after the leave has started).
c) An employee who has given their employer notice of taking leave under clause X.2.1(a) must, if required by the employer, give the employer evidence that would satisfy a reasonable person that the leave is taken for a reason given in clause X.2.1(a).
d) A period of leave under clause X.2.1(a) must start before 30 June 2020, but may end after that date
e) Leave taken under clause X.2.1(a) does not affect any other paid or unpaid leave entitlement of the employee and counts as service for the purposes of entitlements under this Award and the National Employment Standards.

NOTE: The employer and employee may agree that the employee may take more than 2 weeks’ unpaid pandemic leave.

X2.2 Annual leave at half pay

a) Instead of an employee taking paid annual leave on full pay, the employee and their employer may agree to the employee taking twice as much leave on half pay
b) Any agreement to take twice as much annual leave at half pay must be recorded in writing and retained as an employee record.
c) A period of leave under clause X.2.2(a) must start before 30 June 2020, but may end after that date.

EXAMPLE: Instead of an employee taking one week’s annual leave on full pay, the employee and their employer may agree to the employee taking 2 weeks’ annual leave on half pay. In this example:

  • the employee’s pay for the 2 weeks’ leave is the same as the pay the employee would have been entitled to for one week’s leave on full pay (where one week’s full pay includes leave loading under the Annual Leave clause of this award);2 and
  • one week of leave is deducted from the employee’s annual leave accrual.

NOTE 1: A employee covered by this Award who is entitled to the benefit of clause X.2.1 or X.2.2 has a workplace right under section 341(1)(a) of the Act.

NOTE 2: Under section 340(1) of the Act, an employer must not take adverse action against an employee because the employee has a workplace right, has or has not exercised a workplace right, or proposes or does not propose to exercise a workplace right, or to prevent the employee exercising a workplace right. Under section 342(1) of the Act, an employer takes adverse action against an employee if the employer dismisses the employee, injures the employee in his or her employment, alters the position of the employee to the employee’s prejudice, or discriminates between the employee and other employees of the employer.

NOTE 3: Under section 343(1) of the Act, a person must not organise or take, or threaten to organise or take, action against another person with intent to coerce the person to exercise or not exercise, or propose to exercise or not exercise, a workplace right, or to exercise or propose to exercise a workplace right in a particular way.

Other important points

  • The Pandemic Leave entitlement will:
    • be available in full immediately – it will not accrue progressively during a year of service like annual leave or personal leave.
    • be available to full-time, part-time and casual employees. It is not pro-rated
    • it will not be necessary for employees to exhaust their paid leave entitlements before accessing Pandemic Leave.
  • Annual leave and personal leave will
    • accrue as normal during annual leave at half pay.
    • if paid, including at half pay, time will count towards service for the purposes of all NES and award entitlements.

The full FWC decision can be found HERE.

SOURCING LABOUR

There are a number of options available to help you source the labour you require:

VISA CHANGES

The Federal Government announced temporary changes to visa arrangements.

The changes allow workers belonging to the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme to extend their stay for up to 12 months to work for any approved employer.

Working Holiday Makers (WHM) who work in agriculture or food processing will be exempt from the six month work limitation with the one employer and eligible for a further visa to keep working in these critical sectors if their current visa is due to expire in the next six months.

Temporary Work visa holders including WHMs employed in critical sectors, such as horticulture, who have not completed the three or six months of specified work required to apply for a second or third Working Holiday Maker visa, and are unable to leave Australia, may be eligible for a Temporary Activity (subclass 408 Australian Government Endorsed Event (AGEE) stream) visa.

This visa will allow WHMs to remain lawfully in Australia, and continue working, if they wish to do so, until they can return to their home country.

Those already in Australia with the Seasonal Worker Program whose visas are expiring, will be able to extend their stay in Australia by applying for a Temporary Activity (subclass 408 Australian Government Endorsed Event (AGEE) stream) visa.

Holders of other temporary work visas / TSS 482 visa /457 visa currently employed in critical sectors may also be eligible for a Temporary Activity (subclass 408 Australian Government Endorsed Event (AGEE) stream) visa.

Temporary Activity visa (subclass 408) for COVID-19 key points:

  • Valid for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • The visa is free
  • The COVID-19 pandemic event visa is only available to people who are in Australia and have 28 days or less remaining on their current visa or where their last substantive visa has expired up to 28 days previously.

It allows visa holders to:

  • remain in Australia if they have no other visa options and are unable to depart Australia due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
  • remain in Australia to assist in critical sectors including healthcare, disability and aged care, childcare and agriculture during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More information can be found on the Federal Department of Home Affairs website.

Growcom is aware that there are mixed messages regarding the requirements for backpackers and seasonal workers to self-quarantine. At this stage, it is only the current state border provisions that apply. This may change and we will let you know as soon as they do.

Once we have more clarification from the government about self-isolation and the questions raised about accommodation, worker safety and the obligations of the employer, we will send out a Workplace Essentials Alert.

EXPORT ASSISTANCE

The Federal Government has announced a new $110 million initiative to provide airfreight support for essential agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries.

Products eligible may include:

  • Horticulture (such as premium fruits and packages salad or vegetables)
  • Seafood
  • Premium red meat
  • Dairy

The destination countries include:

  • China
  • Japan
  • Hong Kong
  • Singapore
  • UAE

This list may be expanded in the future based on demand, operating method and commercial opportunities.

The Australian departure points will be:

  • Melbourne
  • Brisbane
  • Sydney
  • Perth

For more information: www.business.gov.au/risk-management/emergency-management/coronavirus-information-and-support-for-business/international-freight-assistance-mechanism

Additional capacity for air freight is coming on line for certain markets. Growers and other potential exporters are urged to complete the online survey. New markets will be offered the subsidised freight service if demand can be estimated. Without information the access to new markets (and additional capacity to the nominated markets) will not be available. Complete the survey online here.

AGRICULTURE, AN ESSENTIAL SERVICE

In late march both the Federal and Queensland Governments declared agriculture an essential service meaning state-imposed border shutdowns would not affect agricultural supply chains.

Read the Federal Ministers release here.

Read the State Ministers response here.

GOVERNMENT SUPPORT PACKAGES

In March, both the Federal and Queensland Governments announced multi-billion-dollar economic packages to support households and businesses address the significant economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federal Government support package

If your business has been significantly impacted by COVID-19 you will be able to access the $130 billion JobKeeper payment to continue paying your employees. Under the JobKeeper program, you will be able to claim a fortnightly payment of $1500 per eligible employee from 30 March 2020, for a maximum of six months.

Over the next six months, the Government is temporarily expanding eligibility to income support payments and establishing a new, time-limited COVID-19 supplement to be paid at a rate of $550 per fortnight. This will be paid to both existing and new recipients of JobSeeker Payment, Youth Allowance Jobseeker, Parenting Payment, Farm Household Allowance and Special Benefit.

The Government is allowing individuals affected by COVID-19 to access up to $10,000 of their superannuation in 2019/20 and a further $10,000 in 2020/21. Individuals will not need to pay tax on amounts released and the money they withdraw will not affect Centrelink or Veterans’ Affairs payments.

Through the Boosting Cash Flow for Employers the Government is providing up to $100,000 to eligible small and medium-sized businesses, and not for-profits (NFPs) that employ people, with a minimum payment of $20,000. These payments will help businesses and NFPs with their cash flow so they can keep operating, pay their rent, electricity and other bills and retain staff.

The Government is temporarily increasing the threshold at which creditors can issue a statutory demand on a company and the time companies have to respond to statutory demands they receive. The package also includes temporary relief for directors from any personal liability for trading while insolvent, and providing temporary flexibility in the Corporations Act 2001 to provide temporary and targeted relief from provisions of the Act to deal with unforeseen events that arise as a result of the COVID-19 health crisis.

The Government is increasing the instant asset write-off threshold from $30,000 to $150,000 and expanding access to include businesses with aggregated annual turnover of less than $500 million (up from $50 million) until 30 June 2020.

The Government is supporting small business to retain their apprentices and trainees. Eligible employers can apply for a wage subsidy of 50 per cent of the apprentice’s or trainee’s wage for nine months from 1 January 2020 to 30 September 2020. Where a small business is not able to retain an apprentice, the subsidy will be available to a new employer that employs that apprentice. Employers will be reimbursed up to a maximum of $21,000 per eligible apprentice or trainee ($7000 per quarter).

The Government, the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority have taken coordinated action to ensure the flow of credit in the Australian economy.

Under the Coronavirus SME Guarantee Scheme, the Government will provide a guarantee of 50 per cent to SME lenders to support new short-term unsecured loans to SMEs. The Scheme will guarantee up to $40 billion of new lending. This will provide businesses with funding to meet cash flow needs, by further enhancing lenders’ willingness and ability to provide credit. This will assist otherwise viable businesses across the economy who are facing significant challenges due to disrupted cash flow to meet existing obligations.

View the Australian Government’s full Economic Response: www.treasury.gov.au/coronavirus

Queensland Government support package

Immediate payroll tax refunds will be provided for COVID-19 affected businesses. Eligible businesses can also apply for deferral until the end of 2020 and a payroll tax holiday for three months.

Market Diversification and Resilience Grants (MDRG) for projects up to $50,000 are available to support project activities such as market evaluation studies, staff training, and new equipment. Under the MDRG program equipment purchase grants of up to $7500 are available to support new equipment purchases up to a maximum cost of $10,000. Both programs come with a co-investment component.

A new $500 million concessional loan facility, administered by QRIDA that will comprise low interest loans of up to $250,000 for carry on finance with an initial 12-month interest free period for businesses to retain staff.

Sole traders, small and medium businesses will get a $500 rebate on their power bill. Any business consuming less than 100,000 kilowatt hours will receive the rebate, which will be automatically applied on business electricity bills.

Up to $500 million will be spent to assist workers who lose their job or income with retraining, job-matching and other help to transition into jobs in the industries that are vital to get Queensland through this crisis – such as health care, agriculture, food production, transport, cleaning and mining. Businesses that need access to skilled labour to meet demand will also receive assistance under this initiative.

SMEs can access financial counsellors to get a better understanding of their financial position and viability and gain assistance in developing and implementing plans to improve their financial situation. TAFE Queensland is also offering webinars to help businesses identify risks, build financial skills and plan to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

The Mentoring for Growth program has mentors ready to provide tailored support to impacted small businesses, including financial mentoring and business planning.

In addition to the above economic package, the Queensland Government announced a $20 million extension to the Primary Industry Productivity Enhancement Scheme (PIPES) administered by QRIDA. Under PIPES primary producers can access Sustainability Loans of up to $1.3 million and First Start Loans of up to $2 million.

View the Queensland Government’s full Immediate Industry Recovery Package: www.qld.gov.au/about/industry-recovery

FOOD SAFETY

Advice from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANS) is COVID-19 is unlikely to be transmitted through food, however investigations into how the virus spreads are continuing.

It’s important for food businesses to be extra vigilant with all aspects of health and hygiene, to ensure no-one contaminates the surfaces in your food service or processing environment because of illness or unclean habits.

General food safety advice for everyone

Everyone should practise good hygiene when preparing and handling food.

WHO has issued precautionary recommendations including advice on good hygiene practices during food handling and preparation, they include:

  • washing hands before handling food, and between handling raw and cooked foods
  • thorough cooking and proper handling of meat products
  • covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing
  • avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness, such as coughing and sneezing.

As an added precaution, if you have suspected symptoms of respiratory illness you should avoid preparing food for other people and seek medical attention.

OTHER RESOURCES AND GENERAL INFORMATION

A new Queensland Government dedicated COVID-19 website has been developed: www.covid19.qld.gov.au

The Australian Government has also launched a website for information related to the COVID-19 federal government response: www.australia.gov.au

Fair Farms has produced their first professional development webinar focusing on workplace issues in the context of coronavirus.

Fair Farms Professional Development – Workplace Issues in the Context of Coronavirus

BDO, in partnership with the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, will deliver a series of webinars over the coming weeks to provide you with expert support to help you minimise the impact and lead discussions on the key issues as they unfold.

Supporting Agriculture with business continuity planning & managing supply chain disruption

Supporting Agriculture in COVID-19 – practical approaches and strategies to documenting your business continuity planning

Evaluating and refining your business continuity planning for Agribusiness

Monitoring your business continuity response to COVID-19

PMA A-NZ is planning a series of online discussions focusing on COVID-19 and the different ways it is impacting your business.

Roundtable Recording: COVID-19 and Managing Your Team