We can celebrate a victory this week, with the Fair Work Commission finally listening to Australian unions’ calls for paid pandemic leave for aged care workers.
The ACTU first called for paid pandemic leave for all workers back in March, seeing how this could help stop the spread of COVID-19. At the start of July, an application to Fair Work for paid pandemic leave for aged care workers was rejected. On Wednesday this week, Fair Work changed its mind, granting two weeks paid leave to aged care workers who have to self-isolate because of the coronavirus.
This is a big win. But it took a long time, and the ruling did not go far enough.
The Fair Work decision excludes casual workers with irregular hours. This means that many workers will still turn up to work despite the risks to their health and the health of aged care residents. Meanwhile, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has asked for more time to negotiate with the government over who pays for pandemic leave. The peak employer body has also called to remove access to paid pandemic leave for workers who are exposed to COVID-19 through the community, rather than the workplace. It also wants to restrict paid pandemic leave to those who have had contact with confirmed cases of COVID-19, not just suspected ones.
Calls to tighten eligibility for paid pandemic leave completely miss the point. Paid pandemic leave protects workers, the vulnerable, and the wider community. It should not be restricted – it should be expanded.
“The problem of workers having no leave goes beyond the aged care sector,” ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said this week. “We welcome this decision but it still does not remove the trap door for casual workers with irregular hours, or workers in other industries.”
With business concerned about the cost of paid pandemic leave, this is where the Federal Government comes in.
“Only the Federal Government can step up and deliver paid pandemic leave to protect all workers,” McManus said. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister said that he and the Industrial Relations Minister, Christian Porter, would speak to unions and business groups about paid pandemic leave.
This is welcome. The Federal Government urgently needs to listen to what unions have been saying for months. With case numbers and deaths in Victoria increasing, every day without a decision on this is another day lost to the pandemic.
Paid pandemic leave is the circuit-breaker we need to curb COVID-19 transmission in Victoria and help bring cases under control. As much as 80 per cent of COVID-19 transmission in Victoria is happening in workplaces, with many people going to work even after they have been exposed to COVID-19. Even workers who are reporting symptoms to their bosses are being told to come into work anyway.
As Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said this week, job insecurity is behind many individuals’ failure to isolate after being tested for COVID-19. Job insecurity is a problem for huge numbers of Australians, including people in frontline occupations and people who do not have the option to work from home. 25 per cent of Australian workers are casually employed and have no leave entitlements. They mostly work in low-paying jobs, in industries including meat processing, health care, and private security – all of which have been at the centre of COVID-19 outbreaks in recent weeks.
Asking these workers to ‘do the right thing’ and stay home is not enough. Every worker who has been exposed to COVID-19 should be able to safely isolate, at home, without worrying about their income or their job. This is what Australian unions have been saying for months. The Federal Government needs to pay attention, and make paid pandemic leave happen, now.
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