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Paid pandemic leave key to stem COVID-19 spread and unemployment

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has called for a comprehensive plan from the Morrison Government to support the nation’s workforce. 

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become unfeasible or impossible to work for days, weeks and months. The nation’s unemployment figures through June 2020 have now risen to 7.4% and those figures are tipped to approach 10% by Christmas.

One plan that the ACTU is championing concerns the concept of paid pandemic leave. This would guarantee that workers who have been displaced from their jobs still have an additional form of financial assistance.

Those workers would receive a reimbursement on their salaries, for each and every pay period where they do not work due to any pandemic-related sidelining or shutdowns. It would be paid in addition to any other leave entitlement.

As the ACTU insists in its blueprint that their paid pandemic leave plan would be available to all working people and funded by the Commonwealth. All working people are eligible for it while they isolate with symptoms to get tested; if they need to isolate because they have been in close contact with someone with the COVID-19 virus; or if they need to quarantine if infected.

For any workers that would qualify, they would be entitled to receive a reimbursement from their employer via the Commonwealth, through the life of the pandemic.

The ACTU touts from its own polling that four out of every five Australians surveyed support a paid pandemic leave plan.

And Sally McManus, the ACTU’s Secretary, argues that their paid pandemic leave scheme would not just benefit those workers made to isolate, but especially any casual workers and any under-employed workers falling victim to the COVID-19 virus.

McManus said:

“Recent polls have shown up to 44% of Australian workers have no paid leave because they are in insecure work. Many more have depleted their leave entitlements during the first six months of this pandemic. This is a massive hole in our defences against the pandemic which must be closed.

 

 

This poll shows that the community knows how essential paid pandemic leave is to combatting this crisis. It seems we are all waiting for the Morrison Government to act."

Action has occurred on one front, where on Monday evening, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) extended paid pandemic leave to workers in the aged care sector. This sector of the healthcare industry is rife with a casual workforce and has many members who work more than one job within the sector in order to survive.

McManus, while thanking the FWC for this move, has also called for the scheme to be extended to workers throughout all industries:

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

 

Paid pandemic leave is a crucial public health measure that provides a circuit breaker to stem the rate of transmission by allowing those with symptoms to stay home without losing income.

 

Only the Federal Government can step up and deliver paid pandemic leave to protect all workers."

As McManus and the ACTU’s call for the Morrison Government to act while the approval for such a plan is overwhelmingly justified in the court of public opinion, there remains opposition to it.

Business lobby groups such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) cite that they already favour existing entitlements such as sick leave and unpaid pandemic leave.

According to an unnamed ACCI spokeswoman, the ACTU’s paid pandemic leave scheme would have “serious consequences for the viability of business” because it may give workers the option to take the higher payment of paid pandemic leave at a typical fortnightly salary, for example, instead of the sick leave entitlement.

But McManus and other union leaders opt to take another view. They believe that, by the nature of casual work and the members of the insecure workforce, many may be forced to go into their workplaces even when they are not quite fit to perform their duties. Workers, particularly in this economic climate, oftentimes fear losing out on income if they were not to turn up for work.

McManus remarked:

“It is now abundantly clear that the virus is being spread in workplaces where people are in insecure casual work and have no paid leave.

 

Workers who are getting tested and isolating are saving lives and saving jobs, they shouldn’t lose any pay or put their job at risk to do that. We should be thanking and supporting people who are doing the right thing, not punishing them."

Meanwhile, in Victoria – where 80% of many recent COVID-19 positive outcomes in the State’s dramatic spike in overall cases came down to workplace-related transmission – Premier Daniel Andrews announced the COVID-19 Worker Support Payment Program scheme. This largely mimics the ACTU’s paid pandemic leave plan and puts a concrete dollar amount on its own scheme, with conditions in place.

Andrews, in the Wednesday 22 July edition of his daily 11:00 am media conference briefings on the COVID-19 pandemic from the Victorian State Government headquarters announced the details of the program.

The Worker Support Payment Program’s scheme allows for one-off payments if a worker requires self-isolation after having had a test for the virus and can prove they would lose work as a result, they would receive a $300 payment while awaiting results of that test. 

This payment also pertains to any parents or guardians of the worker as well.

Additionally, if that test comes back positive, that worker would qualify for a $1,500 payment while they are ordered to isolate. That payment would also apply to those who are close contacts of confirmed cases that would have to miss work. 

However, there are conditions:

  • The recipient has to be 17 years and over;
  • Must currently be living in Victoria (including those on Temporary Protection Visas and Temporary Working Visas 457 and 482);
  • Has to be in continuing employment, likely to have worked during the period of self-isolation or quarantine and are unable to work as a result of the requirement to stay at home;
  • The worker must not be receiving any income, earnings or salary maintenance from work;
  • The worker must have exhausted sick leave entitlements, including any special pandemic leave; and
  • The worker must not be receiving the JobKeeper payment or other forms of Australian Government income support.

Andrews – like McManus and the ACTU, as well as Gerard Dwyer of the SDA and other unions’ leaders – concurs that financial incentives must exist so that Victorian workers to not go to work if there is the possibility that they are sick or can infect their co-workers.

“Unless we have people who get tested staying at home and isolating until they get their results, then we will not see these numbers come down,” Andrews said.

Andrews also acknowledged that in addition to 80% of all recent cases being related to workplace transmission, 53% of those Victorians who had tested positive had failed to self-isolate. 

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Andrews points out that getting the numbers down exists as the State's aim and the information about the Worker Support Payment Program’s financial incentives can play a role in helping reduce the numbers of cases.

He said:

“We want a situation where you're no worse off, but every Victorian is much better off, because you're not at work.”

These initiatives proposed by the ACTU and enacted by the Andrews Government put society ahead of the economy in the time of an unprecedented crisis. 

William Olson is a freelance journalist and hospitality professional. You can follow William on Twitter @DeadSexyWaiter.

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