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

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.

The Queensland Government has introduced measures to help agribusiness and commercial fisheries access seasonal workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. This ensures seasonal work can continue so Queensland’s food supplies are secure while meeting coronavirus (COVID-19) public health directions.

Workplace health and safety plan

All agribusinesses have a responsibility under workplace health and safety legislation to provide a safe workplace for their employees, and this extends to minimising the risk of COVID-19 transmission among workers and the community.

You can use the Work health and safety plan template published on the Worksafe Queensland website if you don’t already have a plan in place.

Guideline for reducing workforce impacts related to 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.

Employers in the agribusiness and fisheries industry may hire seasonal workers needing to travel into and within Queensland to undertake work. A seasonal worker is a person who travels to, or within, Queensland for work as it becomes available, requiring them to relocate and stay in temporary accommodation. A seasonal workers can be:

  • A person coming from overseas to travel and work temporarily in Australia (for example, a backpacker, or visa holder)
  • An Australian resident seeking seasonal work either locally or across the country.

workplace health management plan is mandatory in Queensland for all agribusinesses, commercial fishing business or agriculture labour hire companies that employ seasonal workers (including non-permanent residents, temporary visa holders and backpackers).

Download a template workplace health management plan from the Queensland Health website.

A workplace health management plan must:

  • describe the health screening steps you will implement for employees—you are required to undertake pre-employment screening and daily checks of your employees to determine the presence/absence of COVID-19 symptoms
  • describe the steps that you will implement to:
    • manage and prevent the transmission of COVID-19 among your employees and the community
    • maintain health standards
    • respond appropriately should an employee become unwell
  • be submitted to Queensland Health at plans@health.qld.gov.au

If you have a health management plan in place that covers all COVID-19 workplace health and safety management measures, you do not need to duplicate this information in a separate workplace health and safety plan.

The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries has provided record-keeping templates for workplace health management plans to assist your agribusinesses or commercial fishing and processing business to maintain records of activities.

You must have a record of your employee’s work history and accommodation details for the 14 days before commencing work with you (including quarantine compliance if relevant).

Growcom has developed the following documentation to assist you:

If you are employing only Queensland residents who are working near their home and staying in their permanent residence, you are encouraged but are not required to have a workplace health management plan.

You should ensure your existing workplace health and safety plan is updated to include measures to protect employees and yourself from exposure to COVID-19.

While you are not required to submit a workplace health management plan, the measures and guidance materials contained in the workplace health management plan template can be used to update your workplace health and safety plan to address COVID-19. Your workplace must comply with public health directions and social distancing requirements.

You also have a responsibility for providing a safe workplace for your employees. The key things that employers must do to manage exposure to COVID-19 include:

  • maintaining good hygiene and cleanliness of the workplace
  • implementing physical distancing—keeping everyone at the workplace at least 1.5 metres physically apart
  • using protective personal equipment (PPE) appropriately, where necessary.

Find out more about managing and preventing transmission of COVID-19 at your worksite and in the community in the workplace health management plan template.

From midday 10 July 2020, anyone can enter Queensland unless they have been in a COVID-19 hotspot in the last 14 days. Queensland has declared the entire state of Victoria a hotspot.

The tightening of restrictions means people who have been in a COVID-19 hotspot within the last 14 days (except people needed in Queensland for essential purposes) will no longer be able to quarantine in Queensland and will be turned away at our border.

Queensland residents who have been in a COVID-19 hotspot can return home but will be required to quarantine in government-provided accommodation at their own expense.

Details of who is exempt from mandatory quarantine, even if they have been to a hotspot, can be found on the Border Restrictions page.

To enter Queensland, people must complete a Queensland border declaration pass.

Entry requirements for workers from outside Queensland

From 12:01pm (midday) on 10 July 2020 anyone can enter Queensland unless they have been in a COVID-19 hotspot in the last 14 days. On entry, travellers must:

  • provide a valid Queensland Border Declaration Pass
  • commit that they will present for a COVID-19 test if they develop symptoms consistent with COVID-19 within 14 days of entering Queensland
  • comply with the commitment while in Queensland

Providing false, misleading or incorrect information on the Queensland Border Declaration Pass may incur a fine of $4,004 or a court-imposed penalty of up to $13,345.

As an employer, you no longer need to provide your workers with a letter of employment to assist their entry into Queensland.

People who have been in a declared COVID-19 hotspot in the last 14 days will not be permitted entry to Queensland. Currently the entire state of Victoria is a declared hotspot.

You can provide accommodation on your farm or assist in finding accommodation in caravan parks, hostels, backpacker facilities and hotels close by. Read the requirements for providing accommodation on your farm during COVID-19.

People entering Queensland must quarantine at a nominated facility for 14 days at their own expense if, in the last 14 days, they have:

  • been overseas
  • COVID-19 or have had COVID-19
  • had contact with a person who is a confirmed case of COVID-19
  • had symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

All other people entering Queensland are not required to quarantine.

Quarantine means they must stay in their hotel room or provided accommodation, and not go to public places or accept visitors even if they do not feel sick.

Find more information about quarantine requirements.

Workers already in Queensland are now able to conduct unlimited travel including overnight stays throughout the entire state, except Biosecurity areas or Restricted areas.

Workers are encouraged not to visit farms to request work and should instead register their availability at Harvest Trail. They can also phone the National Harvest Labour Information Service on 1800 062 332.

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

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.

Employers have a work health and safety duty to minimise the risk of workers and other in the workplace being exposed to COVID-19 so far as reasonably practicable. If you reasonably suspect someone has the virus, or has been exposed you must act promptly and take reasonable steps to manage the risk.

To assist employers, Safe Work Australia has prepared a downloadable factsheet.

More detailed information regarding the above factsheet can be found on the Safe Work Australia website.

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.

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

UPDATE: The Fair Work Commission has extended unpaid pandemic leave in some awards. There are different end dates for Schedule X (which has the unpaid pandemic leave provisions) in each award. New new end date for the Horticulture Award is 30 September 2020. Full details can be found online here.

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

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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)
  3. 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).
  4. A period of leave under clause X.2.1(a) must start before 30 June 2020, but may end after that date
  5. 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

  1. 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
  2. Any agreement to take twice as much annual leave at half pay must be recorded in writing and retained as an employee record.
  3. 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); 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.

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.

On 3 July, the Australian Government announced an additional $241.9 million to continue the International Freight Assistance Mechanism (IFAM), helping keep international freight routes and flights operating until the end of the year.

The new funding will keep high-value, time sensitive and perishable exports and vital imports, such as medical supplies and other essential items, flowing as we continue the economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. It will also re-establish domestic connections for producers and growers in regional and rural areas that rely on air freight to get their products to customers

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

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

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

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