Among coronavirus chaos, union calls for special measures to protect millions of casual workers from COVID-19 fallout
Leith Hawthorne is worried about what coronavirus prevention measures could mean for her work.
- Leith Hawthorne is worried about losing income if she is caught up in coronavirus quarantine measures
- ACTU secretary Sally McManus says casual workers “should not be invisible” in Scott Morrison’s plans to contain COVID-19
- Casuals are not the only ones to possibly be affected
As a casually employed hairdresser in Brisbane, the 41-year-old said a possible two-week quarantine would have a huge impact on her finances.
“We won’t be able to spend money, because we’ve got none and we can’t work from home, unfortunately … because I’m a tradesperson and hands-on,” Ms Hawthorne said.
Ms Hawthorne said if she were to lose the income from the three days a week she currently works, she would struggle to pay rent and support her two-year-old boy.
“I earn roughly between $400 to $600 a week, which is a lot of money for someone who has a small child, and my partner does work as well, which is great,” she said.
“But she would not be able to work from home since she works in the homeless sector and needs to be with her clients, so it would have a really large impact.
“There would have to be some measures put in place for things like rental payment because people wouldn’t be able to afford to live and pay their weekly bills like they normally do.”
There’s also the potential impact on her ongoing work, with Ms Hawthorne pointing out she is in an industry that could be impacted by other people’s timetables.
So far, the Federal Government has flagged that one planned action in the event a pandemic is declared is to ask people to work from home.
But it is unclear what this would mean for workplaces that cannot offer work-from-home arrangements, particularly in the services sector.
Ms Hawthorne said if she faced an extended quarantine period, she would panic.
“There’s not many [people who] would have four weeks of money sitting in their bank account,” she said.
“It’s like a tree, I suppose. There’s going to be a lot of branches that get affected by people not being able to work.”
It is that uncertainty which has sparked concerns among employers and employees.
Many have written to the ABC saying they were concerned about how coronavirus measures could impact their work and financial situation.
What would coronavirus measures mean for casual workers?
Economist Saul Eslake told ABC’s PM program the retail, tourism and education sectors were likely to be hardest hit by coronavirus.
“If casual employees simply aren’t called into work for reasons connected to coronavirus and the measures put in place to contain it, then those people will effectively become unemployed and will have to fall back on the Newstart allowance,” he said.
It is a problem secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions Sally McManus said needed to be addressed because having people move to Newstart was not a “solution”.
“It’s not a solution when you’re looking at a big emergency response, especially when the Government’s saying they’re wanting to give money to small businesses,” she told the ABC’s PM program.
“We welcome that, but you can’t assume that’s going to trickle down to the workers who might be the ones that really bear the costs.”
In a video posted on Twitter, Ms McManus said casual workers, which account for as many as 2.6 million Australians, “should not be invisible” in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s plans to contain the virus.
“There needs be special measures to support casual workers, to support contractors, to support owner-operators that don’t have leave,” she said.
“There are two problems. Number one [being] the impact on them and their families if they lose hours because of this virus, and number two they shouldn’t have to go to work if they’re sick, if they’re showing symptoms, they should be able to stay at home like everyone else.”
On Thursday morning, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the Government was doing everything it could to keep businesses operating and people in jobs and flagged a stimulus package would be worth billions.
“We’ll have a series of measures that [respond] in a targeted, scalable way but also a responsible way,” he said.
“What we’re not trying to do is solve the last financial crisis because that was a very different economic shock.”
Mr Frydenberg said in a press conference on Wednesday that the stimulus package was yet to be finalised, but would be designed to ensure that the “cash-flow strapped businesses that are currently seeing their supply chains interrupted from the impact of coronavirus” get the support they needed.
It is not clear yet whether this package will look to support workers who are impacted by coronavirus.
Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers said he supported the need for stimulus but wanted to see the Government’s package.
“If it turns out that it’s insufficient or poorly designed then we have a responsibility to point that out too,” he said.
What are casual employees entitled to?
According to Fair Work, if you’re a casual employee needing to look after a family member who is sick with coronavirus, or suffering an unexpected emergency, you are entitled to just two days of unpaid carer’s leave per occasion.
After that, you’ll need to contact your employer to work out an arrangement.
As for those who might get caught up in precautionary measures, workplace relations law expert Professor Anthony Forsyth from RMIT said there was not a lot that could be done.
“So if you don’t get asked to come back for any further shifts, then there’s not a great deal of legal recourse,” he said.
“So employees in hospitality and retail and others where there’s a high level of casual employment may be more vulnerable in this situation.”
Would permanent and part-time workers also be affected?
According to the Fair Work Commission, under workplace health and safety laws, employers are required to ensure the “health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace — as far as is reasonably practical”.
As such, if someone discovers they have coronavirus after spending days working at a big office building, then the employer would have to look at ways to protect their workers.
According to experts, that could include possibly shutting the business down or work from home arrangements while everyone is in quarantine.
Your questions on coronavirus answered
Usually, if you are asked by your employer not to work (assuming you’re a full-time or part-time employee), you would be entitled to be paid.
But under the Fair Work Act, an employee can only be stood down without pay if they cannot do useful work because of “equipment break down, industrial action or a stoppage of work for which the employer can’t be held responsible”.
The most common scenarios are severe weather or natural disasters. For example, the recent bushfires saw some businesses forced to close down due to circumstances beyond their control.
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It is worth pointing out enterprise agreements and employment contracts can have different or extra rules about stand down policies.
Dr Forsyth said standing down workers might be a consideration for some employers.
“If we’re talking about part-time or permanent workers and there’s an impact on the business that’s beyond the employer’s control, they can stand employees down for a period of time while the business is dealing with that issue,” he said.
“Another example [of when an employer might stand employees down] might be in manufacturing businesses that are affected by the impact of supply chains not being able to import goods from China to keep production going because of coronavirus.
“So employees can be directed, for a period of time, to not attend work while business is affected, causing a necessary stoppage of work, and that’s without pay.”
Those rules apply under the Fair Work Act. However, enterprise agreements should also be checked, as these may have rules limiting employer stand-down powers.
The big takeaway: Talk to your employer if you’re worried
If you want to stay at home as a precaution against being exposed to coronavirus, according to the Fair Work Commission, you will need to make a request to:
- Work from home if possible
- Take some form of paid or unpaid leave, such as annual leave or long service leave
You should be aware that these requests are subject to your normal leave application process.
At the end of the day, Dr Forsyth said if you were worried about coronavirus, it is worth talking to your employer, your union or workplace health and safety representative.
That way you can look at possible options, including taking extra precautions at work or taking sick or annual leave if you are permanent or a part-time worker.
“I think everything’s open to negotiation and probably medium to larger businesses are going to be in a better position to have those kinds of discussions with employees,” he said.
“But obviously it’s going to vary depending on the nature of the business — for example, the size of the business and what kind of operation it is.”
And obviously, if you get stuck overseas and cannot return to work or are required to stay in quarantine, Fair Work said you should contact your employer immediately.
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