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Aged care workers to get paid pandemic leave – will others follow?

On Monday evening, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) extended paid pandemic leave to workers in the aged care sector, in an attempt to help quell the spread of COVID-19 virus cases. This financial incentive would encourage those workers tied to the healthcare industry to stay home should they show even the smallest symptoms of coronavirus, and not suffer should they miss work.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has hailed the FWC’s move as a step in the right direction, especially given that the aged care sector’s workers have been characterised as a group of casual workers employed in multiple jobs, and thereby more apt to pass on their symptoms to their co-workers – or worse, to the elderly patients they are required to look after, or to their families.

While the topic of the recent trends in COVID-19 cases have centered around the aged care sector and three related factors – the privatisation of the sector in recent years, the resulting trends of ever-growing casualisation within the sector, and the impact of the findings of the interim Royal Commission report into aged care – the extending of paid pandemic leave by the FWC to the sector is potentially the bigger story with a greater outcome to the nation’s workforce.

In fact, the ACTU would prefer to see the benefits of paid pandemic leave extended to workers across all industries of the Australian workforce.

“The problem of workers having no leave goes beyond the aged care sector,” said Sally McManus, the ACTU’s national secretary.

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

McManus also points out the added benefits of the scheme advocated by the ACTU, benefits which bear greater rewards than just mere financial ones, focusing on public and mental health areas.

“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,” she said.

While the trend towards privatising the aged care sector within the healthcare system industry as a whole has existed as an agenda item by the LNP since the Howard years, the actual finished moves to make it happen have happened within the last few years. And with that, has come greater actualisation rates within the sector – to the tune of a shocking 70 per cent compared to a 40-per cent rate of “private, for-profit” residential aged care facilities – and the findings of an interim Royal Commission into the sector which have found, in general terms, “fails to meet the needs of its older, vulnerable, citizens.”

And with all of that, while the full Royal Commission findings into the aged care sector have been delayed until July 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FWC still deserves full marks of praise for launching the ACTU’s paid pandemic leave plan into action.

But it still does not remove the sting of what has been said in the past about industries where casuals dominate the numbers of the workforce.

Back in March, Attorney-General Christian Porter, who doubles as the Morrison government’s minister for industrial relations, opined that casual workers should be prepared for emergencies due to illness due to the extra casual loadings they receive “in lieu of entitlements” normally received by full- and part-time workers.

But to be fair to Porter, he did a quick about-face the following morning to clarify that while not every worker, particularly casuals, would be prepared for time off due to illness, the potential existed for “a much larger… number of people in all categories of employment” would need economic support for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the guilt of being at the forefront of a global pandemic changed his mind.

Truth is, casual workers remain as a marginalized segment of the workforce, and that perception has only become magnified during the pandemic.

The ACTU, via the aims of its pleas for paid pandemic leave, has set the modest goal to look after all workers displaced by COVID-19 cases if and when they should fall ill. And among them, casual workers most of all, by virtue of the very nature of the culture of their workforce – working for multiple employers within the same industry, such as what has been exploited in the aged care sector, just to make rent, pay their bills, buy groceries, and just to make ends meet in general.

“We need paid pandemic leave for all working people. No one should face a financial penalty or risk losing their job so that they can isolate or get tested. This needs to happen immediately,” ACTU president Michele O’Neil said earlier in the organisation’s campaign.

But at the end of the day, McManus is aware that only a bipartisan action can bring paid pandemic leave available and to workers across all industries. And she is imploring for the Morrison government to make it happen.

“Only the federal government can step up and deliver paid pandemic leave to protect all workers,” she said.

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  1. Trish Corry

    An important article. Thank you William.

  2. Michael Taylor

    Too true, Trish. And adding to that … Sally’s a legend.

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