Employment during and after disasters

During and after a disaster or emergency, employers and employees need to consider issues such as health and safety, emotional wellbeing and payment options.

If a natural disaster or other serious event happens, the health, safety and security of people should be the main concern of all employers and staff. This comes before thinking about the interests of the business or organisation. Employers and employees should remember to keep in regular contact and deal with each other in good faith. 

Pay and leave if an employee is not working after a natural disaster or emergency

If the workplace cannot be accessed, is closed, or is open but the employee is unable to work, employers and employees should refer to their employment agreement, workplace policies and the specific circumstances to determine leave and pay.

Generally, if the situation is not covered under a lawful provision within an employment agreement or workplace policy, an employer is required to pay an employee who is ready, willing, and able to work, if work is not available through no fault of the employee (for example, the workplace has no power). In these situations, it is important to act in good faith and apply common sense.

Working from home

An employer would be entitled to ask their employees to do all or some of their work from home, provided their home is safe and it is possible for the employee to work remotely.

If an employee is able to work from home safely, with agreement from their employer, they must be paid, as normal, for each and every hour that they work as set out in their employment agreement, unless both they and their employer agree, in writing, that they will be paid at a different rate while they are working from home.

If an employee is unable to work from home, and it is unclear what they should be paid, the employee and the employer should consult the employment agreement, discuss, and seek to reach agreement in good faith on what approach will be taken.

If the workplace is severely damaged and or it will be closed for a prolonged period, particularly where working from home is not suitable, then they should seek expert advice on their options.

Any agreement that is made should be recorded by both parties, particularly if it changes the terms and conditions in the employment agreement, for example hours of work, or rate of pay. 

If the employee is unable to work

If the natural disaster or emergency situation is not covered in the employment agreement and it is not appropriate or possible for the employee to work, it is up to both parties to discuss the situation in good faith and determine what basis the employee is off work. 

Options for leave and payment

Leave options are relevant where work can be performed but the employee is unable to work for personal reasons.

  • Annual holidays
  • Anticipated annual holidays or additional annual holidays
  • Using an entitled alternative holiday
  • Special leave, either as provided for in employment agreements or workplace policies or by agreement between the employer and employee
  • Leave without pay
  • Employees can take sick leave if their partner or dependents are injured or sick and they have sick leave available. or if the employer agrees to provide sick leave in advance or extra sick leave
  • Other paid or unpaid leave either as provided for in employment agreements or workplace policies or by agreement between the employer and employee
  • Advance on wages 

Whichever option the employer and employee agree on may depend upon the circumstances, including the nature and extent of the disaster and how long it lasts for. Once all leave entitlements under the Holidays Act 2003 and any negotiated additional leave or any anticipated leave entitlements run out, employees and their employers will need to consider further options in good faith (and consider the impact these options will have on business recovery later). 

The workplace after a disaster or emergency

After a disaster:

  • Always follow the advice of the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management – they’re the experts.

Civil Defence (external link)

  • Be careful, exercise care and good judgement at all times.
  • If there’s damage to any buildings, be alert and cautious if you’re entering affected areas.
  • Never enter areas cordoned off for safety reasons - you could put yourself or others at risk.

Building assessments and re-entry after a disaster

Following a flood, earthquake, significant aftershock, or other natural disaster:

  • It’s primarily the building owner’s responsibility to ensure that buildings are assessed to determine whether they have withstood the event and remain structurally sound (in accordance with the Building Act 2004).

Employers who occupy the building should follow the owner’s advice and be satisfied that the owner is performing their role. If an engineer or other competent professional advisor advises to not re-occupy the building, the building should not be re-occupied.

Right to refuse work for health and safety reasons

Under the Health and Safety at work Act 2015, an employee has the right to stop work, or refuse to carry out work if they think that doing the work would expose them, or anyone else, to a serious risk to health or safety from an immediate or imminent hazard. A trained health and safety representative may also direct employees to stop unsafe work..

Alternatively, they may be able to take strike action under the Employment Relations Act 2000.

If the employee and employer have made reasonable efforts but still haven't been able to resolve the issue, they can use the problem solving framework under the Employment Relations Act 2000 or ask WorkSafe New Zealand for help.

Steps to resolve

Contact WorkSafe (external link)

If you have stopped work because of health and safety reasons:

  • You need to let your employer know as soon as you can that you have stopped work and why. This should include explaining what your concerns are to your employer eg point out or explain cracks in the building structure that you have seen.
  • Your employer may give you safe and suitable alternative work at the same or a different location until it’s safe for you to return to your normal work.
  • You need to make reasonable efforts to resolve the issue with your employer in a timely, final and effective way. You can’t just refuse to work and then do nothing. Both you and your employer must act in good faith.
  • Once you’ve tried to resolve the issue with your employer, you don’t have to start work again if you still reasonably believe that you or another person would be in danger.
  • Your employer can’t treat you adversely because you stopped work due to health and safety concerns. This includes being dismissed or made to resign, not having the same terms of employment, conditions, opportunities for training and promotion as other people with similar qualifications, skills or experience, or being threatened with any of these.

WorkSafe has more information about your rights and obligations. 

Your rights and obligations – WorkSafe (external link)

Strike action and lockouts for safety or health reasons

Employees can take lawful strike action or employers can lock out employees, if they’ve reasonable grounds for believing that it’s justified for safety or health reasons.

Strikes and lockouts has more information.

Workplace and employment changes during or after a disaster 

Employers cannot make changes to your employment agreement

An employer cannot make changes to your employment agreement, including hours of work, wages or salary, or make you do tasks that are unrelated to your job, without talking to you in good faith and you agreeing to it. All changes to an employment agreement must be made in writing and agreed between both parties.

Employees made redundant

Any proposal that involves redundancy must be consulted in good faith and comply with other employment law obligations, including doing what your employment agreement says.

In some situations, such as financial, commercial or economic problems, or a genuine need to restructure the business (for example, moving to an online environment rather than a shop front), an employer may consider workplace change. This may include changes to an employee’s job description, a change to when or how work is done, or reducing an employee’s hours or wages. However, an employer should consider other alternatives first. Redundancy should be the last option and only be considered if there are no suitable alternative arrangements, following a good faith process.

Further support

Financial support

If you've lost your job or can't work at the moment, you may be able to get a benefit or some other financial support from Work and Income. It will depend on your situation. More information can be found on the Work and Income website. 

You're not working – Work and Income (external link)  

If you have a problem at work

If you have tried to resolve the issue with your employer and you cannot come to an agreement, you can use Employment NZ’s Early Resolution Service, a confidential and free phone-based service for employees and employers that helps resolve workplace issues early, quickly, and informally. Please call 0800 20 90 20 or fill out this Early Resolution Form (external link)

If you are a union member, you can contact your union delegate or union office. See the list of registered unions:

Registered Unions – New Zealand Companies Office (external link)

Business support

For information and advice about operating safely, insurance claims, finance and more, see:

Extreme weather: Information for businesses – Business.govt.nz (external link)

Bullying and harassment

Responding to the uncertainty of a natural disaster can be stressful for both you and your employer. Bullying and harassment should not be tolerated in any instance.

Under the Employment Relations Act, MBIE provides early resolution and mediation services to help address issues of bullying and harassment either before the issues becomes entrenched or when parties want help with the employment relationship.

If discussing your current employment status with your employer did not resolve your problem, you can use our Early Resolution Service, a confidential and free phone-based service for employees and employers that helps you resolve a workplace issue early, quickly, and informally. Please call 0800 20 90 20 or fill out this out this Early Resolution Form (external link)

If you have concerns as a migrant worker

Migrant exploitation is behaviour that causes, or increases the risk of, material harm to the economic, social, physical or emotional well-being of a migrant worker. This includes breaches of minimum employment standards or breaches of health and safety and immigration laws.

It’s important that you read through your employment agreement in the first instance, if you do not have one, or suspect you are a victim of migrant exploitation please call 0800 200 088. Interpreters are available for this service. More information can be found at Migrant exploitation

Managing stress

For more information on managing stress issues, go to:

Checklist of things to think about

Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the workplace

COVID-19 and the workplace – Guidance for employers and employees.

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Page last revised: 07 March 2023

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