Calls for paid pandemic leave are growing after 80% of Victorian coronavirus cases were linked to the workplace

Calls for Australians to be granted pandemic leave are spreading. (James D. Morgan, Getty Images)
  • Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has acknowledged 80% of the state’s rising COVID-19 cases were transmitted in the workplace.
  • It’s provided more fuel for unions, which are calling for pandemic leave to be implemented nationally.
  • With half of the workforce without sick or paid leave, such an initiative could help keep workers from spreading the virus.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

As New South Wales and Victoria face rising numbers of coronavirus cases, there are growing calls for the government to do more to protect workers.

On Sunday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews acknowledged the state’s spike could largely be traced back to spread between employees.

“About 80% of our new cases since May are being driven by transmission in workplaces,” he told media, as he revealed the state had seen 363 new cases of COVID-19 and two related deaths in the last 24 hours.

It’s a concerning admission less than a month after the country had looked like containing the virus. As businesses try to remain open and the federal government tries to kickstart an economic recovery, high workplace transmission will remain a key obstacle.

To overcome it, Australia’s unions are calling for workers to be given scope to stay home.

“The Prime Minister must act immediately to provide paid pandemic leave for all workers or risk losing control of the spread of COVID-19 nationwide,” SDA national secretary Gerard Dwyer said.

The Victorian government last month announced a $1,500 payment to all workers who had to quarantine or self-isolate without sick leave, acknowledging the “financial burden” such measures carried.

Calling it “a start”, Dwyer said more needed to be done on a national level to ensure there was a safety net to remove financial risks for responsible workers.

A survey of more than 1,000 workers, provided to Business Insider Australia, revealed that nearly one in two doesn’t have access to annual or sick leave to quarantine without bearing the cost themselves.

“The absence of access to paid pandemic leave for nearly 50% of the national workforce is an invitation to disaster,” Dwyer said.

Noting a prevailing fear amongst workers their hours would be cut if they took time off, Dwyer urged the government to step in to help bear the burden for both workers and businesses alike.

It’s the latest in a growing chorus of union voices urging the government to step in and contain the spread, as the country’s industrial relations system is rejigged to cater for the crisis.

“We may be living with this pandemic for a long time. This means we need to change our attitudes and temporarily change our laws,” Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus said, arguing it was the “most cost-effective measure” the federal government could take.

“Paid pandemic leave costs are a drop in the ocean compared to ongoing lockdowns,” she said.

It’s not just the unions either. The idea of pandemic leave has received (albeit indirect) support from health authorities as well.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has made the case before for providing sufficient leave. In relation to frontline workers, it has stated that “sick leave policies must enable employees to stay home if they have any of the COVID-19 symptoms”.

Thi call has seen some states take action. For example, New South Wales health employees have been granted 20 days of special leave during the crisis.

However, the federal government has so far appeared unwilling to even entertain the idea of pandemic leave.

“We’ve put in place JobKeeper, we’ve provided JobSeeker. These are the supports that the Government has provided, which are at record levels. This country has never seen a level of income support provided by a federal government like they’re seeing now,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told media earlier this month.

As his government looks to cut back much of that support from September, calls for more support will only grow.