As the COVID-19 pandemic takes a dangerous new turn in Australia, the Federal Government must provide all working people with paid pandemic leave.
Australian unions have called for paid leave for anyone needing testing, or who is quarantined because of COVID-19, since the pandemic first hit. But this week, the Fair Work Commission adjourned a union application for two weeks paid leave at employers’ expense for health and community workers needing to quarantine or self-isolate because of COVID-19.
Now, it is up to the Federal Government to introduce paid pandemic leave.
“All workers need to know they will receive 100 per cent of their wage while waiting for results and while in quarantine. If we do not urgently adopt this approach, insecure low paid workers are more likely to avoid testing because they are scared of losing their job and being left with nothing,” ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said this week.
When door-to-door testing was rolled out in Melbourne’s coronavirus ‘hotspots’ last month, there was alarm over the high number of people who refused testing. But, as experts pointed out, for the estimated 37 per cent of Australian workers with no sick leave entitlements, waiting at home for test results or while quarantining means missing out on much-needed income. Some people could also lose their jobs.
The current solution is not good enough. In April, the Fair Work Commission introduced two weeks unpaid pandemic leave. The JobSeeker payment includes sickness provisions. But unpaid leave means little to casual workers, and applying for JobSeeker means going through Centrelink’s administrative processes and waiting periods.
What is needed is an immediate payment that can easily be accessed by all workers. Only the Federal Government can provide this.
It is also up to the Federal Government to make sure every worker, in every state, has the same entitlements in this pandemic.
Right now, some states are providing funds to cover wages lost in the effort to contain COVID-19. The Victorian State Government is offering $1500 payments to people who have to quarantine with the virus, or who have been in close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Queensland has introduced a similar scheme.
But New South Wales has not. 50,000 people crossed the Victoria-New South Wales border before it closed this week. There are now serious fears the Victorian outbreak will spread there, next. Testing, tracing, and isolating known and suspected COVID-19 cases is the best – and, for now, the only – way of stopping the spread of coronavirus. If workers, scared of losing income or losing their jobs, avoid testing or go to work with symptoms, then we may see another, lengthy lockdown in New South Wales, too.
This would mean further devastation to an already damaged economy. The Federal Treasurer, Josh Frydenburg, has said the six-week Victorian lockdown will cost the economy $1 billion every week. Imagine if that extends to Australia’s largest state.
The Treasurer and the Prime Minister must make sure all workers can self-isolate safely. This also means legislating to protect people’s jobs when they are able to return to work. “We also need strong laws to prohibit employers from sacking any worker in quarantine” McManus said, “People who are quarantining should be supported and acknowledged for saving lives and jobs by making this sacrifice”.
A growing body of evidence from across the world backs up McManus and the ACTU’s call for paid pandemic leave. Korea, whose COVID-19 response has been rated among the world’s best, legislated to guarantee compensation to people hospitalised or forced to quarantine because of COVID-19. Research into paid sick leave during the pandemic has led the OECD to recommend sick leave covering all workers as an effective tool to combat COVID-19, particularly as countries come out of lockdown.
Australia, like Korea, has been applauded for its early response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But rising case numbers and the decision to lock down Victoria this week show that this is far from over.
The Federal Government must listen to the calls from Australian unions, the lessons from Victoria, and the evidence from overseas, and immediately implement paid pandemic leave for every worker.