20/04/2021·3 mins to read

Employees travelling in the bubble

With travel opening up to Australia yesterday, many employees will be taking long-awaited holidays across the ditch to see friends and family or just have an overseas break for the first time in over a year.

While travellers can currently enter Australia from New Zealand and New Zealand from Australia quarantine-free, this is subject to change at a moment’s notice. The government has released a guide showing how any new cases in Australia may result in a pause or suspension of quarantine-free travel.

Not only will flights potentially stop going in and out of affected areas, but travellers may need to enter managed isolation on their eventual return to New Zealand. So what does this mean for employees on holiday?

Can an employer stop their employees from travelling to Australia?

As with all employment matters, the starting point is to engage in good faith with employees over a request for leave to travel to Australia. Consider what the risks are if employees were to be stuck in Australia and what realistically can be done to address those risks.

Make a plan

If the employee is able to work remotely, consider asking them to take their laptop or required equipment with them on holiday so that they are ready to log back in when their agreed leave period is over, no matter where they are.

Discuss leave options with your staff before they head off – if they are unable to return to work as planned and cannot work remotely, do they have more annual leave that they can take or will they need to take unpaid leave? It is reasonable to come to an agreement with your employees that they will need to bear the cost of not being able to return to work when expected.

The government has outlined a Trans-Tasman travel bubble “traffic light” system, wherein flights will be:

  • paused for up to 72 hours to and from a state if a case with an unknown source but most likely linked to the border is found (orange); or
  • suspended for an extended period to and from a state if there are multiple cases from an unknown source (red).

You may wish to make leave approval conditional on the state the employee is travelling to not being orange or red at the date of departure.  

If staff cannot work remotely and it would be impractical for the business to cover them for an unexpected and extended period away, it may be reasonable to decline or defer leave for staff planning to head to Australia. Of course, you will need to show that you have a considered reason for not allowing leave, and that you discuss with the employee the reasons that this cannot be managed.

Consider whether it would be appropriate to require staff to return a negative Covid-19 test before returning to the office if they have been stuck in Australia or in managed isolation before their return. This could also be a pre-condition of leave approval.

Remind your employee to check their personal travel insurance arrangements to see what they will be covered for. They may not be able to rely on insurance to cover any unexpected managed isolation or extension of their time overseas.

If an employee is stuck in Australia or managed isolation in New Zealand, do you have to pay them?

If an employee has already headed off on their trip and you haven’t agreed any pre-conditions of what will happen if they are stuck overseas or in isolation, it is important to approach the situation reasonably.

If the employee has taken their necessary equipment to work remotely and you can agree to an acceptable arrangement for working while they are in Australia or isolation, you may agree to pay them as usual. While it is not always ideal to have staff working remotely for extended periods, you will need to make it clear to staff before they travel that this will be unacceptable if you do not want them to work remotely or pay them for doing so. Remember, you will need to be reasonable in explaining why this is not practicable for their role.

If the employee is unable to work remotely, the “flyer beware” message that the government is promoting will apply. If a staff member is unable to return to work on the expected date, they will need to discuss with you if it is possible to take further annual leave or unpaid leave until their return. As it is reasonably foreseeable for staff that they may get stuck in their travels overseas, it is a risk that they will be taking on when they decide to travel.

We highly recommend open discussions with staff about their travel plans and what might happen if quarantine-free travel is paused or suspended. Unlike last year where people got caught out travelling, we now know what might happen and can prepare for not making it back to the workplace when expected.

Business travel

If Trans-Tasman travel has been a part of business as usual for you in the past, make sure you consider how this will be managed now and make this clear to employees. Consider whether it is appropriate to restart business travel in the bubble, and if so what contingency plans could be put in place. Communicate to staff whether business travel to Australia will resume and outline any additional requirements for staff travelling on business.

Business travel insurance should be carefully reviewed, make sure you understand what you will be liable for if your staff are stuck in Australia or managed isolation.

Get in touch

If you have any queries on travel plans and implications for your organisation, please get in touch with our contacts.


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