Business guide to Coronavirus

What pandemic leave options are there in Australia?

An estimated 3.7 million Australians including casuals, contractors, freelancers, sole traders and gig economy workers don’t have access to paid sick leave or other permanent employment protections. Many permanent workers have also exhausted their sick leave entitlements during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This is a significant issue when people are required to stay at home and isolate. Isolation may be required if a person is feeling slightly unwell, waiting for a test result and up to 14 days for a positive test result.

Just over 80% of Australians want paid pandemic leave to be funded by the Federal Government, according to a recent poll conducted for the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). Without paid pandemic leave, many people will continue to turn up to work when they’re sick or should be isolating.

An estimated 80% of people who have caught coronavirus in Victoria’s second wave caught it in the workplace, according to Tony Burke, Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations. Many Australians are choosing to go to work to get paid to the detriment of following the government’s rules to keep themselves and others safe.

Pandemic leave background

In April 2020, 99 modern awards were varied by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to include unpaid pandemic leave as an entitlement and recognised that more may need to be done for healthcare workers. The time frame of unpaid pandemic leave has been extended in some awards. However, this does not address affordability to take one or multiple periods off to isolate.

Paid pandemic leave for Victoria

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Monday 3 August that the Federal Government will introduce paid pandemic leave in Victoria to help those impacted by stage 4 restrictions. The ‘disaster payment’ of $1,500 will be paid to those who are required to self-isolate because of COVID-19 but do not have leave entitlements.

The Prime Minister said: “this pandemic is a disaster. We need a disaster payment when it comes for people who have to isolate for a period of 14 days through no fault of their own. Regardless of what job they’re in or employment, they’re in.”

If someone is required to isolate, “those with no sick leave available to them will be eligible for a $1,500 payment for the fortnight”. The payment will not apply to those already receiving JobSeeker or JobKeeper as they will receive income support if they're in the circumstance they need to isolate.

The payment will be modelled on the exact set of criteria that the Victorian government has put in place for its paid pandemic leave scheme. “Those payments are principally made to those who are on short-term visas who otherwise wouldn’t have accessed Commonwealth payments,” Mr Morrison said.

In addition, he said, “we will make sure that everyone else who finds themselves in this situation and they don’t have that leave available through their sick leave because it’s been exhausted will get a $1,500 payment for that fortnight.”

Paid pandemic leave is also available to people who live in New South Wales and South Australia but who work in Victoria. Click here for more information. 

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Paid pandemic leave for all Australians

“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," said Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

The ACTU is lobbying for paid pandemic leave to be in addition to any other leave entitlement, available to all working people and funded by the commonwealth. That would allow workers to get tested and isolate when they need to.

Ms McManus said, “the problem of workers having no leave goes beyond the aged care sector. No worker should be left considering if they should go to work with mild symptoms to pay the bills. Having paid pandemic leave across Australia should stop the workplace transmission of the virus.

The Federal Government is working with the ACTU to identify data that supports workplace absences contribute to a lack of financial support and workplace transmission of COVID-19. The FWC may consider similar paid pandemic provisions to the aged care worker award.

“We must take away all disincentives to isolate to get the virus under control. A huge proportion of transmission is happening in workplaces, so it is essential that we facilitate workers staying home when they need to, so that can get tested and isolate,” McManus added.

Paid pandemic leave approved for health care

The FWC recently decided to grant paid pandemic leave in three modern awards of Aged Care, Health Professionals and Nurses Awards with the exclusion of casual workers with irregular hours.

The FWC found there had been a significant deterioration in the position with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in Victoria’s new daily cases.

From 29 July 2020, the paid pandemic leave will apply for three months. On each occasion of self-isolation, an aged care worker who is either experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or come into close contact with someone who may have COVID-19 will be provided with a maximum of two weeks' paid leave.

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