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Do all your Employees have Employment Agreements?

Published: 30th November 2016

Author: Richard Hearn, Corcoran French

Published in: Fineprint | Issue #71

And do they comply?

A recent report from Statistics New Zealand suggests that nearly 1 in 10 employees do not have a written employment agreement. Of those who do have written employment agreements, it’s probably fair to say that a proportion of those are not up-to-date. Recent changes to employment law also mean some previously compliant agreements may need revising.
Whether you are an employer or an employee, you should check your employment agreement and make sure it complies with the minimum requirements. If it doesn’t, employees may be missing out on entitlements, and employers could be exposing themselves to increased penalties and claims from employees. Directors and senior business managers can now also be held personally accountable.

Minimum requirements

The Employment Relations Act 2000 (ERA) requires that every employee must have an employment agreement and that agreement must be in writing whether it is for a permanent, fixed term or casual position. The agreement must include the following:

  • Names of the employee and employer
  • A description of the work to be performed by the employee
  • An indication of where the employee will perform the work
  • Any agreed hours of work or, if no hours are agreed, an indication of the arrangements relating to the times the employee is to work
  • The wages or salary payable to the employee, and
  • A plain language explanation of the services available for the resolution of employment relationship problems, including a reference to the period of 90 days within which a personal grievance must be raised.

Employers must retain a copy of the employment agreement.

Within the ERA, there are further specific requirements in relation to certain types of clauses. For example, if the agreement includes a trial period clause, there are specific requirements which must be met if it is to be relied on to end employment within 90 days.

Recent changes

The Employment Standards Bill was enacted earlier this year, with effect from 1 April 2016. It introduced a suite of changes to employment law including some which mean existing employment agreements will need updating. It also toughened the penalties for employers who do not comply with their obligations.

Some of these changes are summarised below. Please see us if you require a more detailed explanation of the changes and what they may mean for you.

Parental leave

Parental leave eligibility was extended to ‘primary carers’ who can include grandparents, aunts and uncles. Those employees on casual and fixed term agreements are also eligible.

Leave entitlements have been extended, and there is now also the option of agreeing to ‘keeping in touch’ arrangements. These are where employees can return to work on a limited basis for up to 40 hours (total) during their leave without losing their leave entitlements. This allows employees to keep up-to-date with any training or changes in the workplace, and to maintain their social and professional bonds.

Zero-hour contracts

‘Zero-hour contracts’ is a colloquial term for employment contracts which require an employee to be available for work, but don’t offer any guaranteed hours or compensate the employee for being on-call. Zero-hour contracts are now prohibited.

Where an employer and employee agree the hours that are to be worked, this must be recorded in the employment agreement. Where particular hours are not agreed, the agreement needs to give an indication of the hours.

Employers who want to be able to require employees to be available for extra work must include an ‘availability’ provision in the employment agreement. This must set out minimum guaranteed hours of work, and any period which the employee is required to be available above the guaranteed hours. Employment agreements cannot contain an availability provision unless the employer has genuine reasons for requiring it and the employee is reasonably compensated for making themselves available.

If the employment agreement doesn’t comply with these requirements, the employee cannot be required to work more than the agreed hours and cannot be treated adversely if they refuse to do this.

Deductions from wages

Currently, employers need the express consent of their employee to deduct any amounts from wages (other than PAYE, etc). Employment agreements commonly contain an agreement to this effect so that the employer does not need to obtain consent every time a deduction needs to be made.

Now, even if the employment agreement contains such a clause, an employer must still consult with their employee before making a deduction. There is also a prohibition on making unreasonable deductions from wages, even if the employee consents to them. An example of an unreasonable deduction might be in relation to theft of the employer’s property by a customer where the employee had no control over it.

Secondary employment

Employment agreements often contain limitations on an employee’s ability to undertake work for other people. These clauses are now subject to a number of limitations.

It’s only permissible to include such a clause if the employer has genuine reasons based on reasonable grounds, and those reasons are stated in the employment agreement. Genuine reasons can include:

  • Protecting commercially sensitive information or intellectual property rights, or the employer’s reputation, or
  • Preventing a conflict of interest that cannot be managed without such a restriction.

A secondary employment clause can only prohibit or restrict other work to the extent necessary having regard to the reasons set out in the agreement.

For agreements that were entered into before 1 April 2016, employers have until 1 April 2017 to remove or amend clauses in existing agreements which don’t comply.

It’s important to get it right

The Employment Standards Bill also made other changes which emphasise the importance of employment agreements:

  • Record keeping requirements have been clarified
  • Penalties have increased
  • Employers can be publically named if they fail to meet minimum employment standards, and
  • People other than the employer (for example, directors and senior managers) can be held liable.

Failing to meet minimum standards can result in penalties and infringement notices being issued. It can also have a significant effect, for example, on an employer’s ability to dismiss an employee.

Check your agreements

This is a good time for all employers and employees to check their employment agreements to ensure they comply with the minimum standards set out above. Employers may also have policies which may need updating.

If your employment agreement doesn’t comply with the new legislation, talk to your employee or employer about amending it to bring it up-to-date. We have experts who can assist.

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