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‘Trap door’: No pay for ill workers threatens further spikes

Lucy Dean
·4-min read
Unions are calling for paid pandemic leave for all. Images: Getty, Google
Unions are calling for paid pandemic leave for all. Images: Getty, Google

Unions are calling for paid pandemic leave to be available to all workers who do not have sick leave.

The calls come after the Australian Fair Work Commission confirmed paid pandemic leave for casual aged care workers in a bid to stop ill casual workers from showing up to work.

“The problem of workers having no leave goes beyond the aged care sector,” the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus said on Tuesday.

The aged care ruling only applies to staff who work on a regular basis.

“We welcome this decision but it still does not remove the trap door for casual workers with irregular hours, or workers in other industries.”

She said paid pandemic leave is an important public health measure in stopping potentially infectious but financially vulnerable Australians from going into work.

“No worker should be left considering if they should go to work with mild symptoms to pay the bills,” she said.

“The Government can fix this and should do so to stop the workplace transmission of the virus.”

The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA Union) has also called for paid pandemic leave across all workforces.

Nearly half (45 per cent) of workers have no paid leave, according to a national poll from UComms. The same poll found 10 per cent of those workers would continue to go to work with mild symptoms, while 64.7 per cent said they would do this because they couldn’t afford to take time off work or feared they would lose their job.

“Retail workers on the frontline, many of whom are supported by paid pandemic leave, need to know that the health of the shoppers they serve is being supported in the same way,” SDA Union national secretary Gerard Dwyer said.

“The absence of access to paid pandemic leave for nearly 50 per cent of the national workforce is an invitation to disaster.”

He noted Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ comments that around 80 per cent of new Covid-19 cases since May were driven by workplace transmission.

“With unemployment at its worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, hours worked being cut and floor traffic in many retail outlets falling resulting in reduced cash flow, the Morrison government must immediately provide paid pandemic leave for all businesses that can’t or won’t,” Dwyer said.

‘Financial distress’: Commission’s aged care ruling

In delivering its ruling on paid pandemic leave in the aged care sector, the Fair Work Commission noted that self-isolation was in the public interest but that workers isolating can face significant financial distress.

"Further… there is a real risk that employees who do not have access to leave entitlements might not report Covid-19 symptoms which might require them to self-isolate, but rather seek to attend for work out of financial need," the ruling continued.

"This represents a significant risk to infection control measures. These matters weigh significantly in favour of the introduction of a paid pandemic leave entitlement."

It also said the current spike in Victoria may not remain confined to the southern state.

“The recent events in that state demonstrate how rapidly circumstances can change,” the commission said.

“Recent developments in New South Wales are not encouraging. The award of the entitlement remains necessary notwithstanding that the current locus of the pandemic is in Victoria.”

The Victorian state government is providing $1,500 payments to those diagnosed with Covid-19, or those living with confirmed cases, who do not have access to paid leave.

Last week, it also announced a $300 hardship payment provided to Victorians who have been tested but have not yet got their results, in a bid to prevent potentially infectious people from going to work.

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