The office Christmas party might look different this year. Here’s a state-by-state breakdown of employer’s legal requirements in terms of gathering to celebrate the end of the year.
As we crawl towards the end of what has felt like the longest year in history, there’s a glimmer of excitement on the horizon for many employees – the end-of-year Christmas celebration.
Although Christmas parties are great for boosting morale, especially after a challenging year (well, two years – but who’s counting?!), employers may now be asking themselves: is it worth the hassle and risk?
As well as the usual risks of hosting an office Christmas party – intoxicated employees and the potential for inappropriate behaviour – employers now have to think about the COVID-19 related risks:
“Will people be allowed to dance and sing?”
“What about masks?”
“Do we need to organise awkward trivia games to keep people seated?”
“Will months of isolation exacerbate people’s tendency to get out of hand at these events?”
In answering these questions, it’s important to keep in mind that ultimately, employers are responsible for ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their employees and others in the workplace.
Work Christmas parties by state
Firstly, timing and location of the event are key, as most states and territories have different and changing requirements. For example, in NSW, for fully vaccinated people only:
- singing and dancing are permitted indoors and outdoors (no need to organise activities during a party to keep people seated and occupied);
- alcohol may be consumed while not being seated (avoiding the almost impossible task of ensuring people who are drinking stay seated); and
- masks do not need to be worn.
However, density limits of one person per two square metres still apply, so employers need to be mindful of the size of the venue and the number of people attending.
In South Australia, the one person per two square metre rule is enforced for standing events. When people are sitting, three people per four square metres are permitted in a venue. There is a limit of 150 people per venue with only 50 people permitted to dance at once. While singing is permitted, masks must be worn indoors (unless you are a performer). Importantly, employers must also have an approved contract tracing system that’s independent from the one used by the venue.
In Queensland, which is currently under stage three restrictions, as of 17 December 2021 or when 80 per cent of Queenslanders aged 16 and over are fully vaccinated (whichever comes first), proof of vaccination status certificates will be required, meaning entry to certain venues will be restricted to those who are fully vaccinated.
Eating and drinking while standing is permitted and there is no limit on gathering in public spaces. Fully vaccinated Queenslanders will need to follow the one person per two square metre rule for indoor venues or 100 per cent allocated seated and ticketed capacity.
In NSW, once the state reaches 95 per cent double vaccination, or on 15 December 2021 (whichever comes first), proof of vaccination will no longer be required by Public Health Orders for most activities. There will be no density limits, and both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals will be able to enter hospitality venues. It will be optional to complete a COVID-19 Safety Plan, but businesses should nonetheless be very familiar with COVID-19 protocols and requirements to ensure your office Christmas party is conducted safely.
In Victoria, there are no density and capacity limits on hospitality businesses. Dance floors have also reopened, and masks are required in some settings. As in NSW, attendees at venues in Victoria will need to be fully vaccinated.
In Western Australia, there are no square metre rules or patron caps, however events with over 500 guests require the completion of a COVID Event Checklist, and all events should be registered with the WA Department of Health.
As of 12 November, all organised events in the ACT, both indoors or outdoors, must have a COVID-19 Safety Plan. Density limits of one person per two square metres apply for events with more than 25 people. If you’re having an office Christmas party with more than 1000 people, it must be ticketed or pre-registered, and events with fewer than 1000 people must use the Check in CBR app.
Tasmanian businesses can host 250 people in an “undivided space” indoors and 500 people in outdoor premises. The one person per two square metre rule applies. A checklist submission is required in this state too, however events at this capacity are not subject to approval.
In the Northern Territory, public health orders and lockdown/lockout requirements for the Greater Katherine and Robinson River area, including surrounding homelands, must be followed until 7 December 2021 and 1 December 2021, respectively, or subject to government announcements. Fully vaccinated residents in Robinson River and surrounding homelands are able to live normally within the lockout area. Residents of Binjari and Rockhole are currently in a hard lockdown (as on 25 Nov 2021).
There are different requirements depending on the size of the event and whether or not it is held inside or outside a Major Population Centre. Outside of lockdown areas, there are no limits on indoor or outdoor gatherings, but the square metre rules are still advised, as are limiting social events to 2 hours.
Consider also ensuring the following when planning your office Christmas party:
- hand sanitizers should be more accessible than the alcoholic beverages;
- attendees should check in to the venue on arrival; and
- employees should be made aware of hygiene protocols prior to the office Christmas party, such as staying home if unwell and regular hand washing. Everyone has probably memorised these by now, but a reminder doesn’t hurt!
Virtual Christmas parties
Thinking about having a virtual office Christmas party to avoid any risks? It’s not that simple.
An employer’s health and safety obligations extend to Christmas parties that take place in an online environment. In the same way that employers need to ensure the health and safety of their employees while they work remotely, these principles also apply to an online work function.
It’s important to complete the necessary risk assessments, avoid excessive consumption of alcohol by employees, encourage employees to be careful with company property and ensure there is a clear, official finishing time for the event.
On top of this, it can’t hurt to also bring employees’ attention to your bullying and harassment policies and ensure they’re reminded that inappropriate behaviour, even in an online environment, can result in consequences or termination.
Employers are advised not to let their guard down by underestimating the limited risks associated with a virtual event.
Whatever HRM’s readers choose to do to celebrate the festive season, we recommend that you familiarise yourself with the rules and any potential issues and liabilities, and plan accordingly.
We wish you a very happy festive season, and a safe and peaceful new year!
Aaron Goonrey is a partner and Luke Scandrett is a special counsel in Lander & Rogers’ Workplace Relations & Safety practice. With thanks to Angela Knezevic for her assistance in preparing this article.
Note: The advice in this article was up-to-date as of 29 November 2021. The rules and regulations around COVID-19 are subject to change. You should seek independent legal advice if you’re unsure of your legal obligations as an employer.