Paid pandemic leave could be further extended to help workers deal with coronavirus

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The prospect of giving paid pandemic leave to people who need to self-isolate due to COVID-19 will be discussed by the Federal Government, unions and employers, after the entitlement was granted to aged care workers this week.

On Monday, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) ruled that workers on three aged care awards should be granted the special form of leave, if they had no other entitlements that would pay them while isolating and awaiting a test result or due to COVID-19 symptoms.

So could that soon see other workers given similar leave? Here’s what you need to know.

What is paid pandemic leave?

Throughout the coronavirus outbreak in Victoria, a major driver of transmission has been people turning up to work while displaying symptoms.

The goal of paid pandemic leave is to remove any financial pressure that might make somebody turn up to work while sick, by giving them leave as an entitlement, even if they are a casual worker.

Employment lawyer Alan McDonald said this week’s decision ensured that aged care workers who were not entitled to sick leave would not lose income if they needed to self-isolate.

“The Fair Work Commission decided to remedy an inadequacy in the award which fails otherwise to provide for paid leave for casual employees who need to be absent from work due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Why has only the aged care sector got it?

On July 8, the FWC declined to extend paid pandemic leave to 99 healthcare awards, including those covering aged care workers, on the grounds that the situation in Victoria, which at the time had about 860 active COVID-19 cases, did not warrant a change.

But the commission reserved the right to alter the awards if circumstances worsened.

This week, the “balance” tipped in favour of providing leave to aged care workers on award wages, the commission wrote, with Victoria currently home to nearly 5,000 active cases, hundreds of which are in aged care homes.

Epidemiologist Raina MacIntyre said paid pandemic leave should be a minimum for aged care workers and other healthcare workers.

“We’ve done some research on influenza in aged care and done some research around aged care workers and quite often they can’t afford out-of-pocket costs for healthcare,” she said.

“If you don’t make it easy for people to isolate when they need to isolate or get quarantined, they’ll turn up to work infected.

“That’ll just make the situation worse.”

The commission has signalled it could change other healthcare awards in the future if the situation in Victoria or other parts of the country declines further.

“The paid pandemic leave entitlement which we have awarded in the current urgent circumstances may require adjustment, in light of continuing developments, and it is possible that future events may require the consideration of the extension of the entitlement to other awards,” Monday’s decision said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that separately from the FWC, he had instructed Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter to discuss extending leave to other workers with employers and unions.

“It’s a matter I have discussed with the Minister for Industrial Relations and, as you know, there are ongoing discussions between the Government, employer groups and employees about a range of issues managing the pandemic, and that will be one of them,” he said on Wednesday.

Mr Porter said the Government was keeping a “watching brief” on whether leave needed to be extended further.

“The problem is obviously most acute in aged care,” he said.

“The other problem is we want to make sure that people, when they can and are able to turn up lawfully to work, are doing so because we don’t want to have the denuding of the staffing in the aged care facilities.”

Could other sectors get paid pandemic leave?

Unions and Labor have been pushing for the Federal Government to step in and ensure paid pandemic leave is guaranteed for all sectors.

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said she hoped progress would be made.

“This initiative is essential to defend our country against the spread of the virus, it will save both lives and jobs,” she said.

Mr McDonald said widespread changes through the FWC would be unlikely, and could further strain businesses.

“If that sort of decision was extended very broadly across the economic sector, you may have serious problems in other areas, where government is not so heavily subsidising an industry — the meat industry might be a good example,” he said.

“Imagine if the Government had to get involved in subsidising that, or the Fair Work Commission had to get involved in making decisions which would often affect small businesses which would have little or no capacity to pay this and may not be receiving such subsidies.

“To try and regulate them through variations in awards would be onerous to everyone.”

Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell, said any changes should be covered by government.

“It’s a good thing to do if we can encourage people to get tested and stay at home,” she said.

“But it’s not reasonable to expect businesses to pick up the tab. Businesses are already in a world of pain.”

The sentiment was echoed by the Australian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, which argued against paid pandemic leave being extended to workers in aged care.

“Many businesses around the country are already on their knees and cannot afford to pay unlimited leave entitlements to staff not working, without government assistance and funding,” chief executive James Pearson said.

“It is vital governments step in to provide sufficient financial support to address the funding gap created as a result of the FWC decision regarding paid pandemic leave — without it we will face elderly people in our community being left without proper care.”

By political reporter Jordan Hayne (Original ABC Article)

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