Unions are calling for universal pandemic leave payments as the economy opens up, warning the Morrison government’s current scheme is forcing workers to choose between getting paid and following public health rules.
In a new report published on Monday, the Australian Council of Trade Unions said the federal government’s Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment is “complex and inadequate” for people required to miss work because of COVID-19.
The disaster payment gives eligible people $1500 to isolate or quarantine for 14 days, but only if they have no other income.
It’s also slightly below the minimum wage and only available to workers who have run out of leave entitlements – a condition the ACTU said has left people worse off for following COVID health advice.
“As workers are instructed that they need to isolate, their leave balances are being wiped out and for those in insecure work they face significant pay cuts,” the ACTU said in its new report, Making Work COVID-Safe.
“Workers should never have to choose between their financial security and taking a test or isolating – but this is exactly what the federal government has forced them to do.”
The report comes as public health experts and economists predict that workers will have to follow isolation rules for months to come as Australia learns to live with the virus.
Unions want the support to be expanded and have pointed to the Omicron variant as evidence that the pandemic is far from over.
Supporting workers to get tested
The federal government has granted more than 130,000 Pandemic Leave Disaster Payments to date, totalling more than $195 million.
But the payment only provides support to those required to isolate or quarantine, not to those who miss work because they need to get tested.
Testing support is only provided by some state governments, such as New South Wales and Victoria, but unions said a national scheme is needed.
And the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment is also due to expire in June, despite public health experts saying isolation requirements are needed for the long term.
Tens of thousands of workers are already isolating at any given time.
Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales, said expanded pandemic leave is “long overdue”.
“This, sadly, is not going to be the only pandemic in our working lives,” Professor McLaws said.
“It’s important for our public health tools that people don’t feel anxious about the food they can put on the table and the money they can earn and fail to get tested or stay at home.”
Professor Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, said support should be in place to ensure workers aren’t left worse off financially because they need to comply with the public health orders.
She warned a disincentive to get tested could seed a major outbreak or cause someone to fall seriously ill because the virus goes undiagnosed.
“One of the best ways to control the virus is testing,” Professor Bennett said.
“But if that means tapping into your sick leave or being concerned about using it then that creates a disincentive.”
Alison Pennington, senior economist at the Centre for Future Work, said the Morrison government must urgently extend pandemic leave support beyond the current expiration date in June while also expanding eligibility for the support available.
Ms Pennington said the prevalence of insecure work and “haphazard” income support for isolating Australians had put public health at risk – forcing too many people to choose between getting paid and following the public health advice.
“Our pandemic income support settings are ill prepared for the challenges we face now,” Ms Pennington said.
“The emergence of a new variant makes it quite clear these payments have to be extended, but the coverage [also] has to be expanded.”
Ms Pennington said the government should eventually look to pass on some of the cost of pandemic leave to employers, while expanding sick leave entitlements to casual workers, who are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 at work.
All other income support programs should also be increased, she said.
“We should insert a new industrial right into the national employment standards,” Ms Pennington said.
“That’s the quickest way to create a system where workers have access to test and isolate payments and quarantine if need be.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s office was contacted for comment.
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