Employment during and after disasters

During and after a disaster or emergency, employers and employees need to consider issues like 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 employees. 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

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 , 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, if the workplace has no power). In these situations, it is important to act in and apply common sense.

Working from home

An employer is 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 can 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, and discuss and try 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. 

Work from home

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 the basis for the employee being 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. Options include:

  • anticipated annual holidays or additional annual holidays
  • using an entitled
  • special leave, either as provided for in employment agreements or workplace policies or by agreement between the employer and employee
  • leave without pay
  • if the employee’s partner or dependants 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). 

Employers can make employees take entitled annual holidays if:

  • they cannot reach agreement with their employee about when annual holidays will be taken and they give the employee at least 14 days' notice, or
  • they regularly close down for a certain period every year and give the employee at least 14 days’ notice.

If an employer closes the workplace unexpectedly, for example, if there were a sudden closure of the workplace following a natural disaster, and an employee refuses to take annual holidays with less than 14 days' notice and is prepared to come into work, they cannot be made to take annual holidays.

Taking annual holidays

There are special rules for shift workers relating to cancelling a shift or ending a shift early. If an employee is a shift worker and is willing and able to carry out their agreed hours of work, but their employer:

  • cannot provide them with work, or
  • cannot provide them with access to a suitable and safe workplace

this is considered a cancellation of the employee’s shift.

Whether an employee is entitled to compensation from their employer for ‘cancelling’ these agreed shifts or ending a current shift early will depend on the terms of their employment agreement, the date of their employment agreement, and the specific circumstances of the cancellation.

If the date of an employee’s employment agreement was 1 April 2016 or later, their employment agreement and employer must comply with the shift cancellation requirements of the Employment Relations Act 2000.

This means their employer cannot cancel 1 or more of their shifts unless:

  • the employment agreement has:
    • a reasonable period of notice for cancellation, and
    • reasonable compensation payable to the employee if the employer cancels a shift without giving reasonable notice, and
  • the employer either gives the employee the above notice or pays the reasonable compensation above, and
  • cancelling the shift does not breach the employment agreement.

If the employment agreement does not have a valid shift cancellation provision and the employer cancels a shift anyway, the employer must pay the employee what they would have been paid if they had worked the shift.

Employers must also pay employees what they would have been paid if they had worked the shift if:

  • the shift is cancelled but the employer does not tell the employee until the start of the cancelled shift, or
  • the rest of the shift is cancelled when the employee has already started the shift.

In this situation, the pay the employee gets when the shift is cancelled is included in their ordinary weekly pay and relevant daily pay.

It’s unlawful if the employer does not comply with the law about providing reasonable notice or reasonable compensation for shift cancellation.

If an employee’s employment agreement is dated before 1 April 2016, their employer has until 1 April 2017 to comply with the shift cancellation provisions of the Employment Relations Act 2000. 

Employees may still be able to claim compensation depending on what their employment agreement says. Employees who are not sure if their employer is required to compensate them should seek further advice.

If an employee is not entitled to compensation for shift cancellation, their employment agreement may have other options relating to a disaster that apply to their situation. 

If none of these apply, they can still discuss options for leave and holidays with their employer in good faith. This may also apply when the current roster ends and the employer and employees have not agreed to a new roster. 

Hours of work

The workplace after a disaster or emergency

After a disaster, always follow the advice of the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management — they are the experts.

Civil Defence - National Emergency Management Agency(external link)

  • Be careful, and exercise care and good judgement at all times.
  • If there is damage to any buildings, be alert and cautious if you are 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 if 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.

The local council advises building owners to conduct assessments following an emergency if:

  • the owner or employer thinks the building might have been damaged in some way
  • there are any known structural weaknesses in the building that previous assessments have identified and have been brought to the attention of the owner or employer
  • there’s an aftershock during an earthquake event. A reassessment should be made particularly if structural damage was observed, but after smaller events it may not be necessary.

For more information read WorkSafe New Zealand's operational policy. The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 also supports this approach.

Dealing with earthquake-related health and safety risks: information for PCBUs and building owners - WorkSafe(external link)

The owner and the employer are both PCBUs and have duties to consult and engage with each other, and to work together in relation to the health and safety of employees and others affected by their respective businesses.

Who or what is a PCBU - WorkSafe(external link)

If there is any chance that a workplace may not be safe, employers should make a careful external visual inspection before allowing employees back in.

If the employer’s external visual inspection is clear and damage is unlikely, they should still make an internal visual inspection before letting employees back in the building. If there is the slightest doubt about the integrity of the building, exit immediately and get an expert assessment report before anyone goes in.

When making a visual inspection or entering the building for the first time, as a precaution you should:

  • be on alert as the contents of the building may have shifted and material may have fallen. There might be new hazards or risks, for example, spilled liquids or damaged racking for stored goods, uneven or damaged floors
  • make sure you are protected with appropriate protective gear if you know there are chemicals or other dangerous materials in your workplace, and be careful when you first go in. Stop — look — assess — and do not take any risks. If you are unsure or have any concerns, there are professionals who can help you make your workplace safe
  • treat all services as live and avoid any exposed wiring
  • make sure there is at least 1 clear exit (wedge a door open and keep your exit path clear from debris)
  • wear a suitable safety mask (in case of dust), safety helmet and safety goggles
  • take a torch if necessary
  • have someone keeping watch outside who can go for help if you strike a problem and cannot get out
  • assume any water is contaminated with sewage, for example, water dripping onto floors.

If you know or suspect that there may be hazardous dusts, for example, asbestos or silica, in the workplace, contact WorkSafe or seek professional assistance before entering. A simple dust mask may not protect you from exposure, and appropriate respiratory protective equipment must be selected, fitted and worn by someone with sufficient training to wear it properly and ensure that it’s effective.

WorkSafe (external link)

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 have not been able to resolve the issue, they can use the problem-solving framework under the Employment Relations Act 2000 or ask WorkSafe for help.

Steps to resolve problems

Contact us – 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 — for example, pointing out 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 cannot just refuse to work and then do nothing. Both you and your employer must act in good faith
  • once you have tried to resolve the issue with your employer, you do not have to start work again if you still reasonably believe that you or another person would be in danger
  • your employer cannot 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 have reasonable grounds for believing that it’s justified for safety or health reasons.

Strikes and lockouts

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.

Collective and individual agreements

Employees made redundant

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

In some situations, like financial, commercial or economic problems, or a genuine need to restructure the business (for example, moving to an online environment), 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.

Restructuring and workplace change

Good faith

Further support

Financial support

If you have lost your job or cannot 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 the 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.

Early resolution

Please call 0800 20 90 20 or fill out the Early Resolution Form. 

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, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) provides early resolution and mediation services to help address issues of bullying and harassment either before the issues become 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 the early resolution form.

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 wellbeing 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.

Migrant exploitation

Managing stress

Work-related stress - WorkSafe(external link)

Coping with stress and anxiety - Ministry of Health(external link)

Checklist of things to think about

  • Take care of your own health and safety. This includes when you are in the workplace and when you are at home — for example, you may be suffering from stress or anxiety associated with the disaster. For many people, getting back to work and normal life as quickly as possible can help to reduce anxiety and stress.
  • Take care of the health and safety of your dependants. If you have a dependant who is injured or sick, then you may be able to use sick leave to care for them.
  • If you are not going into work, do your best to make sure that your employer knows and that you apply for the correct type of leave for your situation.
  • If your workplace is safe and you plan to return to work, make sure:
    • your transport is organised — check out public transport availability, carpark building availability and alternative routes in case of road closures. See if you can carpool with your workmates — you could ask your employer to help organise this for you.
    • you continue to take care as you travel to work. Even if your workplace is safe, you may be travelling through areas that could be unsafe. 
  • If your workplace is not safe, you can refuse to work.
  • Act in good faith, be honest with your employer about how you are feeling and clearly communicate any concerns you have. If you are finding your return to work difficult, get help and support. Your workmates (and employer) are probably experiencing similar feelings to you.

Take care of the health and safety of your team, yourself, and your customers/clients.

  • If the workplace is not safe, do not ask your staff to work there. Make sure it’s safe first.
  • Communication and support are very important. Following a disaster, contact employees as soon as possible to advise them of the workplace situation and your expectations of them. Give them updates — even if they are not required to be at work — so that they know what is going on. Use texts and social media where possible to minimise overload of the telecommunications network. 
  • Remember employees may be under additional stress, so provide them with support and help and show your concern. This could include access to an Employee Assistance Programme for counselling, having a team debrief, or a daily blog or email.
  • If public transport is unavailable or reduced, think about facilitating carpools among employees. Smaller employers could organise carpooling with other employers nearby. Consider any impact on employees getting to work on time and whether you can be flexible.
  • Consider wider infrastructure issues, for example, road closures, power outages or water restrictions, and the impact of these on employees getting to and from work and whether you can be flexible.
  • In an extraordinary event you may need to approach things differently. This may include temporarily changing your leave policy, letting employees work flexibly or adopting a flexible approach to employees making personal phone calls to check on family during the workday.
  • Think about any negative impact on pay, for example, processing payroll, and try to minimise this.
  • Act in good faith, be honest with employees about the situation, and communicate clearly. You can provide them with an expert report showing the workplace is safe to reassure them. If an employee is concerned about the workplace being unsafe, ask them exactly what they are worried about — for example, have they seen cracks — so that you can investigate.

Good faith

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