By William Olson
A bipartisan attack led by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and followed through by a key Labor minister has been launched towards putting pressure on the Morrison government to install any sort of a national paid pandemic leave program – five months after both the ACTU and the ALP introduced the concept when the COVID-19 pandemic was initially declared.
The ACTU and the Business Council of Australia (BCA), a pro-business lobby group, released a joint letter on Monday to implore the government’s Attorney-General Christian Porter to “move quickly” to coordinate a scheme which falls in line and complements existing public health directives around COVID-19 testing and isolation policies around Australia, in support of all affected workers.
As the ACTU and BCA have joined forces to express a sense of urgency being required to make a paid pandemic leave program happen, shadow industrial relations minister Tony Burke has warned that any further delays by the Morrison government to install such a program could possess “deadly” consequences.
“Every day the Morrison Government delays on paid pandemic leave puts Australian lives and livelihoods at risk,” Burke said on Monday.
Burke added that as the government is wasting valuable time on bureaucratic procedures, all they need to do is examine the recent spike in positive cases in the state of Victoria that have led to Stage 4 restrictions around Melbourne and Stage 3 restrictions within regional Victorian areas.
“It has been obvious since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March that paid pandemic leave is a critical measure to protect workers’ lives, public health and the national economy. And yet five months later the Government is talking about consultation processes and evidence gathering.
“The crisis in Victoria should be all the evidence they need.
“With 80 per cent of new coronavirus infections linked to workplaces, it is clear we need financial incentives to keep people at home when they’re sick or have been exposed to the virus.
“There can be no doubt a universal paid pandemic leave scheme could have prevented some of Victoria’s terrible toll. If we don’t move now, other states could follow,” Burke said.
Meanwhile, ACTU secretary Sally McManus, allied with BCA chief executive Jennifer Westacott, echoed Burke’s concerns while pointing to the Victorian example, but also unveiled a three-point plan to recommend a starting point for any paid pandemic leave program.
Those points expressed to Porter consist of:
- The amending of the Fair Work Act (2009) to incorporate a leave entitlement consistent with the decision of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) in relation to the Aged Care Awards (2010);
- The provision for reimbursement to business to facilitate the leave entitlement. Mechanisms such as those used for JobKeeper or the Paid Parental Leave payment may appear appropriate compared to any paid pandemic leave program;
- And the funding would come from the Federal Government and, where necessary, the relevant state governments
“For many workers who have no or inadequate sick leave, that the cost of isolation can be particularly burdensome. Furthermore, whilst many businesses have implemented policies to provide for paid pandemic leave, not all are able to do so given the cost, especially in the current circumstances where workers are often required to isolate and get tested on multiple occasions,” McManus and Westacott jointly said in the letter.
McManus and Westacott also acknowledged the recent scheme unveiled by Victorian premier Daniel Andrews to provide financial one-off incentives to eligible affected workers, in the way of $300 for anyone tested and awaiting results and $1500 for anyone testing positive and requiring prolonged isolation plus any additional instructions from public health professionals.
But they said plans such as Victoria’s may require some enhancement, as a model for other states and territories.
“Unfortunately, the mechanisms available to state governments to effectively implement and administer such a scheme are inadequate and consequently we have seen minimal take up over recent weeks,” they said.
The comments from McManus, Westacott and Burke came before the Morrison government announced a $1500 payment only for a small group of Victorians who would have to isolate after returning positive COVID-19 results but had no other form of leave entitlements – and McManus was quick to slam the government’s move as reactionary and an underpayment against workers’ average wages.
“Any money for workers who are saving lives and saving jobs by staying home and doing the right thing is welcome, but this payment does not address the full scale of the problems which [a] fully-funded paid pandemic leave [program] would address,” McManus said on Monday evening.
“This payment will mean that nearly all fulltime workers who are forced to rely on it will take a pay cut while they isolate. This will mean that [while] a financial penalty still remains, this just weakens our COVID-19 defences.
“We need to do better. We need to do everything we reasonably can. The Morrison Government cannot stop at this half-measure,” added McManus.
While McManus and Westacott – an alliance perhaps viewed by some observers as unlikely of a pairing as when McManus and Porter met ahead of the declaration of the pandemic for talks which eventually yielded the JobSeeker and JobKeeper schemes – have saluted their ability to work together and appealed to Porter for his immediate feedback, Burke has sternly warned that any further delays would have severe consequences.
“Workers cannot be forced to choose between paying their bills and protecting their colleagues, customers and patients,” said Burke.
“Unless we get a universal scheme, we will have more community transmission, leading to more outbreaks and economy-smashing lockdowns. We cannot afford not to do this.
“The Government needs to wake up. It is out of time. It was out of time on this months ago.
“Further delay will be deadly,” Burke added.
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