Key legal issues to keep in mind if you own a small business in lockdown

Key legal issues to keep in mind if you own a small business in lockdown

From figuring out how to access the right government support, dealing with customer cancellations, and managing remote teams, small business owners around Australia – especially those in lockdown – are dealing with a lot of stress.

If you’re a small business owner, it’s worth keeping in mind all the legal issues that may crop up for your business while navigating all the sudden changes that come with additional COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns.

Courtney Bowie, founder of Her Lawyer, a law firm that caters specifically to women in business, has shared with Women’s Agenda some of the top things small business owners can keep in my during this time.

Employment law matters

With the goalposts for businesses constantly changing as different restrictions are imposed, it can be next to impossible to figure out your next move, especially when it comes to managing employees.

Bowie says its important to be mindful of compliance in every aspect of running the business, especially if you are asking staff to make changes to their regular work routine – like if you ask them to take leave or change their usual hours. It’s essential to comply with your employees’ Award, their existing contracts, and it’s also important make sure you are documenting any changes that are being made.

“It’s basically impossible for business owners to make a plan, including workforce planning, at the moment,” Bowie said. “The main thing will be to ensure compliance in every action.”

“Remember your obligations to consult. Understand that people are under immense stress so are more likely than not to have overly emotional reactions to bad news.

“Don’t let that stop you doing what you need to do to make sure your business is still here on the other side but be prepared.”

As we navigate the pandemic, the issue of COVID-19 vaccinations and how that relates to your business and employees is, likely to rear its head.

Bowie says as an employer, you should be following the Fair Work Ombudsman website, and the legal developments in this space to understand your obligations relating to workplace health and safety, and how that intersects with vaccinations.

Business rights relating to commercial leases and operating costs

There are various forms of state-based assistance available right now to help manage rent and business operating costs, including small business grants and the JobSaver payment in NSW. As yet, there has been no federal government relief, like a reinstatement of JobKeeper, offered.

In NSW, currently in its eighth week of lockdown, the state government has reinstated regulations to ensure property owners will have to negotiate rent relief agreements with eligible tenants in financial distress due to public health orders. Under the code of conduct, rent relief should be proportionate to the tenant’s decline in turnover.

In Victoria, commercial landlords are required to grant relief to impacted tenants, and landlords will not be able to evict tenants without a determination from the Victorian Small Business Commission.

How can small business owners be using their time?

In lockdown, many small businesses have had to close, or severely reduce their regular hours. This may mean an increase in downtime for many owners.

Bowie says personal and mental health should be prioritised during this highly stressful time, and this should always come first. But if you find yourself with extra time, it might an opportunity to get creative, or build some momentum on a business idea.

“What we’ll likely see once we head towards the end of this thing, is confidence growing,” Bowie said. “And then everyone will want to implement the lessons learned, for example, Covid-specific cancellation policies.”

What support is needed for women in small business?

As for how female-led small businesses can be better supported during this time, Bowie says it’s imperative the federal government brings back the JobKeeper wage subsidy, especially in NSW where lockdown looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

“Businesses just need more support to sustain themselves,” Bowie said. “I don’t see how the Government can justify refusing to bring back JobKeeper. The NSW support package isn’t going to cut it.”

Corporate clients of small businesses could also show their support by continuing to pay their invoices on time, and even early, if possible, Bowie suggests. Suppliers could support their small business partners by extending their payment terms.

“People just trying to do their bit to help others. Trying to be empathetic and kind to each other in words and actions,” Bowie said.

Women’s Agenda is working with Her Lawyer to deliver key guides and ideas covering off some of the most common legal issues facing women in business. You can check out Her Lawyer here.

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