Coronavirus patient from Melbourne abattoir has annual leave deducted by employer instead of sick leave

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Melbourne abattoir worker Eh Choe, 38, has been home sick with coronavirus for the past two weeks, isolating in a separate room of his house away from the rest of his family.

But despite having to isolate at home, Mr Choe told 7.30 his time off work has been deducted from his annual leave, rather than his sick leave.

He works at the JBS meat-processing plant in Brooklyn in the city's west, which has been linked to 82 cases of the virus.

"I am drained from having COVID-19," he told 7.30 through a Karen (a language spoken in Myanmar) translator.

"Even though I am feeling a bit better, my energy is not back to 100 per cent."

Mr Choe works in the cold room at the factory, often moving between warm and freezing temperatures throughout the day, so when he started to feel a fever, he thought nothing of it at first.

"The inside of my workplace is cold, but I would get sweaty when helping other people or working outside. My body temperature would go up and down while I was working," he said.

"When I got home at night after work, I got a fever and took medicine. I felt my temperature going down a bit after."

When he went back in to work at JBS on July 13, the company had COVID-19 tests on site.

"I had a bit of a cough at that time, so I took the test, and the next day the result came stating that I am positive."

He told 7.30 that despite being diagnosed with COVID-19 and needing to stay home and recover, his work did not deduct his two weeks from sick leave.

"I do have sick leave, I have more than 100 hours of sick leave. I saw [on my payslip] that they did not count my days off from my sick leave but instead it's from my annual leave," he said.

"Usually we need to fill in a form first before they allow us to take annual leave. But this time they told me I can take days off from work without filling in the form."

Despite Mr Choe's experience, JBS said that any worker who tests positive to the virus is entitled to take sick leave.

In a statement, the company said: "There has been confusion among our workforce about the type of leave employees are entitled to take."

Since being contacted by 7.30, JBS has offered to change Mr Choe's annual leave to sick leave.

JBS is just one of several meat-processing facilities in Melbourne where COVID clusters have emerged.

JBS's Brooklyn factory was ordered to shut down for two weeks. The company said it had deep-cleaned the factory and tested all workers at the site.

'Insecure work is driving the second wave'

Workers in essential industries like aged care, transport and manufacturing, who cannot work from home and are often on casual contracts, along with migrants and those with English as a second language, are being hard hit in this second wave.

Sally McManus from the Australian Council of Trade Unions says workers who do not speak English are "so vulnerable to being exploited, exposed, getting infected".

"If you've got the coronavirus, you are certainly sick and it is sick leave, not annual leave," Ms McManus said.

"It's those workers that are now becoming the fodder really for the coronavirus pandemic and they're being sent out to be the essential workers and they're paying the price."

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has implored workers who feel unwell to stay home, and the Government has offered one-off payments of $1,500 for workers without paid sick leave who are required to isolate with COVID-19.

"Too many people are still going to work when they have symptoms," Mr Andrews said on Thursday.

However, Ms McManus said many workers in insecure work may be reluctant to isolate.

"The issue is this: it's that people who are insecure workers who don't have sick leave also can be sacked at will," she said.

"As a community, we need to support those people staying at home, because what they're doing is they're actually saving lives and they're also saving jobs by not going to work and spreading the virus."

She is adding her voice to the growing call for paid pandemic leave for all workers.

"The obvious thing we need to do [is] to take away that financial penalty that people are currently facing when they weigh up whether they should get tested or whether they should stay at home," Ms McManus said.

"Insecure work is driving the second wave that's occurring. The holes it leaves in our defences, the fact that workers don't have paid sick leave in the middle of a pandemic, is what is spreading the virus."

Federal Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations Christian Porter told 7.30 in a statement that the Government would look into the issue.

He said the Government would continue working with stakeholders, including the ACTU, "to identify data and evidence illustrating where circumstances may arise where a lack of financial support for a workplace absence could manifest as a contributing cause of workplace transmission of COVID-19, particularly in Victoria".

"The Government will consider that evidence when it's made available before deciding next steps."

Multicultural hub a coronavirus hotspot

Mr Choe lives in the city of Wyndham, west of Melbourne. It is a sprawling multicultural hub that its 27-year-old mayor Josh Gilligan is very proud of.

"You will never find a more diverse local government area than Wyndham," he said.

"You've got the second-fastest-growing city in the nation here … 48 per cent of the 275,000 residents that we have are migrants.

"We've got over 100 countries represented in our city."

It has also become known as a COVID-19 hotspot, with the highest number of total confirmed cases in Australia.

The diversity of residents, many of whom do not speak English as a first language, is presenting unique challenges in getting health messages across in the fast-moving environment of a pandemic.

Along with posters and pamphlets in different languages, the council has taken to social media to get the word out on public health messages.

"We've been using Facebook, which auto-translates into a whole series of languages across our city," Mr Gilligan said.

The council is also using its commercial kitchen to cook meals for vulnerable members of the community who are self-isolating.

"This council is delivering 600 meals a week, 250 hampers that are comprised of staples to hundreds of families, some of which have COVID-19, who cannot leave their home because they are in lockdown," Mr Gilligan said.

"They don't have the support networks like most of us do, whether that be family born here, as an example.

"We're making sure that the families in these homes don't have to choose between making sure they have food to live on, versus leaving the home knowing that would be contrary to strict health guidelines about staying at home."

Whole family gets coronavirus

Another local resident, Khun Ree, 65, tested positive to coronavirus around two weeks ago and has been isolating at home. He has been mostly relying on a weekly Burmese radio show on SBS to keep informed about the virus.

He too caught the virus via a local abattoir.

"My daughter's husband works in a meat-packaging factory. He got it from there," Mr Ree told 7.30 through a Burmese translator.

"He didn't realise what it was. He felt sick, took paracetamol and went back to work. After it happened twice, we drove him to have a test.

"Our whole family went for tests and we tested positive."

Mr Ree lives with eight other family members across three generations. The whole household of nine contracted the virus from his son-in-law who works at the meat-processing facility Somerville Retail Services (SRS) in Tottenham. There have been 106 cases of COVID-19 linked to the facility.

When 7.30 contacted SRS, the company declined to comment.

(Original ABC Article)

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