EXPLAINER

Pandemic leave: What has been announced and how did we get here?

Authorities say people going to work while sick has been a major source of spreading the virus. Picture: Shutterstock
Authorities say people going to work while sick has been a major source of spreading the virus. Picture: Shutterstock

Late on Monday Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the government would introduce paid pandemic leave for Victorians, but calls for the payment have been growing for weeks.

How did we get to this point?

Almost every day Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews delivered the state's latest news on coronavirus, he has had one consistent message - pleading with people not to go to work if they are feeling unwell, are waiting for results of a test, or if they have tested positive for the virus.

According to health officials in Victoria, transmission in workplaces is one of the major spreaders of the disease, with clusters related to meatworks and distribution centres where people often have to work in close quarters.

It seems unthinkable, but authorities in that state found one in four people doorknocked because they had the virus weren't home. In many cases, other people in the household volunteered the information that the person who should have been at home was at work.

This has led to calls from unions, businesses and some industry sectors for the introduction of paid pandemic leave, that would be allow people to stay at home and isolate and stop the spread of the virus.

What has been announced?

So far the government has announced a $1500 payment would be made to anyone in Victoria who needs to self-isolate due to coronavirus, and it would be similar to disaster payments available to bushfire victims.

After the Prime Minister's press conference, details are still scant about what evidence people will need to provide for eligibility.

At this stage the payment is only available to Victorians and will be available "for as long as the government considers it a disaster".

Mr Morrison said it wouldn't be available to other states as they aren't in a state of disaster like Victoria, but if another state was to experience a similar situation then a disaster payment of this nature would be available.

It is estimated that most recipients of the payment will be people on short term working visas who don't have other payments available to them.

"That means that those who need to self-isolate as a result of an instruction by a public health officer - there is no economic reason for you to go to work," Mr Morrison said.

People will also be able to access the payment more than once if they are forced to self-isolate multiple times.

What is paid pandemic leave?

Paid pandemic leave also exists under some awards for workers in the aged care sector after a decision by the Fair Work Commission in July. This is what the leave involves for people on those awards. It's believed the circumstances for the government's flat rate payment will be similar.

Put simply, it is leave that people can take so they stay home for various reasons related to the pandemic, including being told to isolate by authorities due to exposure to the virus, making it different from sick leave.

According to a decision made by the Fair Work Commission for workers under specific awards, paid pandemic leave would be two weeks of paid leave for people who can't work for one of five reasons. If they have have been told by their employer, government authorities or medical authorities to self-isolate, if they been tested for coronavirus and need to self-isolate and wait for a result.

It would also be for people who are showing symptoms of coronavirus and have been told to self-isolate by a medical professional, or if they have come into contact with a person suspected of contracting coronavirus.

It would also be available to people who aren't at work because their workplace has been closed by government or medical authorities in response to coronavirus.

Pandemic leave is only paid in situations where sick leave isn't available.

Why is it needed?

There are a few indicators that are being drawn on by advocates for paid pandemic leave.

In July Mr Andrews said about 80 per cent of the state's new cases since May were being driven by workplace transmission.

Data showing where people who are getting sick live also points to people in lower socio-economic areas, who are more likely to be in casual or precarious work, are getting sick at a higher rate.

There is also the evidence that people who should be isolating are being found to be at work.

Who wanted it?

The push for paid pandemic leave has been led by the union movement, but on Monday they were joined in their call by the Business Council of Australia.

In a joint letter to Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Business Council said the leave was now an "essential" public health measure.

"Regrettably, recent events in Victoria have demonstrated that there are insufficient measures in place to enable workers who should not be attending their workplaces to stay home," Business Council boss Jennifer Westacott and ACTU secretary Sally McManus wrote.

"For many workers who have no or inadequate sick leave, that the cost of isolation can be particularly burdensome."

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The two groups, usually sitting on opposite sides of the table, have called for the leave to be funded by the federal government and where necessary state governments, and for businesses to be reimbursed in a similar mechanism to the JobKeeper scheme.

Labor and the Greens have also been calling for paid pandemic leave to be introduced in a bid to support efforts to stem the spread of the disease.

What has the reaction been?

The ACTU has already criticised the announcement as not going far enough, because it is at the minimum wage level, below what most people earn.

"We need a new, temporary, paid leave entitlement so that working people will not lose wages or risk their job to isolate or get tested when they need to," Ms McManus said.

"This payment will mean that nearly all full-time workers who are forced to rely on it will take a pay cut while they isolate. This will mean that a financial penalty still remains, this just weakens our COVID-19 defences."

The Greens have also said it falls short.

"Workers can only get this watered-down payment if they've been ordered to stay at home, so it won't cover people who are experiencing symptoms but haven't yet visited a doctor," the party's leader Adam Bandt said.

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This story Pandemic leave: What has been announced and how did we get here? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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