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COVID rules leave workers ‘hung out to dry’: Unions

·4-min read
Road sign reminding NSW residents of lockdown, Brad Hazzard speaks at press conference.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has said employers must let workers work from home where possible. (Images: Getty).

Confusing messaging around who is and who isn’t an essential worker is leaving vulnerable workers faced with impossible choices, unions are warning, calling on authorities to draw a line.

Sydney’s lockdown will continue until at least the end of July as COVID-19 continues to spread through the city’s south west region, with the state government now imposing strict testing rules on essential workers.

Additionally, all workers who are not essential have been urged to work from home.

However, the state government has not yet defined who is and who isn’t an essential worker, leaving workers in a complicated position, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) has said.

“Retail workers don’t get to choose. If they’re asked to come to work – they have to,” SDA NSW secretary Bernie Smith said.

“The NSW Government can’t put the responsibility of managing the pandemic response

onto retail workers. It isn’t up to workers to define what they mean by essential and nonessential retail.

“Workers and business owners are being left in the dark during an already very stressful time. It is up to the Premier to make it clear.”

While workers who have lost income can claim up to $600 a week in the COVID-19 disaster payments, Smith said there are too many questions around who is eligible.

“If a retail worker decides for themselves to stay home will they be paid the Covid Disaster Payment? If the Premier can’t definitively answer that how can a worker decide when they don’t know if they can put food on the table or not?” Smith said.

Canterbury-Bankstown Mayor Khal Asfour has also said the community needs “clarity” on the matter.

“Not many of us work from home, not many of us can work from home, and it’s important that we just get some clarity on what is essential because we have people that work from all types of industries,” he told Sky News.

“We need to make sure that everyone stays safe and no one’s out there in the community when they don’t need to be and that’s why we need clarity.”

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told employers they are obliged to ensure staff are working from home where possible, and urged employees to discuss the matter with their employers.

“I certainly would want you to be talking to your employer because… it may be that there can be other arrangements in place. These days most employers would have capacity in an office environment anyway to be able to facilitate you working at home,” Hazzard said.

“I have heard that some employers are telling employees they must come into the office.... Please understand there actually is a health order requiring you to allow your workers to work from home unless they really can’t.”

Essential workers, according to Victoria

Victoria experienced Australia’s longest lockdown in 2020, clocking some 114 days of major restrictions.

Under one of its strictest rules, workers were required to carry permits proving they were essential if they were leaving home to go to work.

The state considered these businesses essential:

  • Supermarkets, grocery stores, bakeries, butchers, fruit and vegetable stores or fishmongers;

  • Indoor or outdoor markets;

  • Restaurants, cafés, pubs, bars or hotels, whether licensed or unlicensed, as long as they were only operating takeaway, delivery or providing meals for the homeless;

  • Bottleshops;

  • Financial institutions;

  • Consular and diplomatic services;

  • Courts, tribunals or commission services;

  • Post offices;

  • News agents;

  • Pharmacies;

  • Petrol stations (including petrol stations that sells groceries);

  • Vehicle and mechanical repair services;

  • Pet stores or veterinary clinics;

  • Urgent services necessary for the health and safety of any person, animal or premises;

  • Essential child protection activities;

  • Childcare, early learning centres, kindergartens, preschools or family day care providers;

  • Schools but only for the children of essential workers and vulnerable children.

Essential workers were considered staff who worked at those businesses and couldn’t perform their duties remotely.

In addition, emergency services and law enforcement staff, essential infrastructure staff, religious leaders broadcasting services from places of worship, health practitioners, roadside assistance vehicle workers, waste workers, journalists, factory workers and critical politicians were also considered essential workers.

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