Australia is introducing “paid pandemic leave” for casual staff working in aged care due to concerns a lack of basic employee entitlements is accelerating the spread of Covid-19.
The move comes as authorities in the US and elsewhere consider extending emergency aid for unemployed workers as a new wave of coronavirus infections forces renewed shutdowns and job losses.
From Wednesday in Australia, casual employees at residential care homes will be eligible for up to two weeks of paid leave if they need to self-isolate due to having symptoms of the virus or having come into contact with a confirmed case, according to Australia’s workplace regulator.
“There is a real risk that employees who do not have access to leave entitlements might not report Covid-19 symptoms,” said the Fair Work Commission, which had previously resisted a push by trade unions for paid pandemic leave.
The U-turn by the regulator follows a surge in coronavirus infections this month in Victoria, where about one in six of the 4,775 active cases in the state are in residential aged care services.
Last week, Victorian authorities pinpointed insecure work as an important factor that prompted nine out of 10 people who contracted the virus to continue to work, rather than self-isolate, after developing symptoms. The state government has since begun providing a A$300 ($214) payment to people who need to self-isolate.
An industry body representing private companies in the aged care sector said the government would need to extend further financial support to the sector in order for it to provide paid pandemic leave.
Sara Charlesworth, professor at RMIT University, said Covid-19 had exposed systemic faults in Australia’s aged care system, including high levels of underemployment and low pay.
“It’s not as though aged care workers are not acutely aware of risks to clients and residents — they are. But you’ve also got an imperative to be able to make a living,” she said.
Ms Charlesworth said some jurisdictions, including Canada’s British Columbia, had anticipated the risks of low wages and insecure work early in the Covid-19 crisis. It moved quickly to restrict casual staff to working in one care home, topped-up workers’ wages and supported a shift to full-time employment.
The role played in the outbreak by casual workers, who often cannot afford to take time off work when they get sick, has also turned a spotlight on Australia’s gig economy.
Several companies have recently agreed to provide financial assistance to casual staff who need to self-isolate, with US food delivery company Door Dash partnering with Australia’s Transport Workers Union on Tuesday.
“The risks are great and too many [delivery riders] are having to make the choice between feeding themselves and going to work or staying at home and not earning a cent if they don’t feel well,” said Michael Kaine of the Transport Workers Union.
He said all gig economy workers should be given similar protections.
Get alerts on Coronavirus economic impact when a new story is published