Unions call moves to wind back the isolation period for essential workers ‘reckless’ as supermarket staff shortages climb to almost 40%

Unions call moves to wind back the isolation period for essential workers ‘reckless’ as supermarket staff shortages climb to almost 40%
  • NSW and Queensland will allow close contacts of COVID-19 cases to return work, as the states face critical food shortages.
  • Major retailers including Coles and Woolworths have reported staff shortages of up to 40% at their distribution centres due to the state-imposed isolation requirements. 
  • Workers unions have criticised the move, claiming it will exacerbate supply chain issues if workers spread the virus in workplaces.
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Australia’s unions say they are being excluded from crucial supply chain meetings as the country battles dwindling fresh food supplies, empty shelves and staff shortages across the major supermarket chains.

On Sunday the Australian Workers Union (ACTU) stated it had been excluded from a supply chain management meeting on Sunday with the Prime Minister and Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt that sought to address the staffing and stock shortage issues.  

It comes as rules for supermarkets and other workers deemed ‘essential’ to the running of the nation’s supply chains change in several states in response to surging Omicron cases that have led to a spike in workers isolating. 

‘Critical’ or ‘essential’ workers in NSW and Queensland who are asymptomatic are no longer required to self-isolate if their job is essential for growing, manufacturing or transporting food, according to the new rules. 

The changed guidelines come in response to food shortages across the country, with federal health officials indicating isolation rules may soon change nationwide. 

The previous requirements, which compelled workers who had tested positive for COVID-19 and their close household contacts to isolate, has caused staff shortages and empty supermarket shelves.

Major retailers including Coles and Woolworths have reported staff shortages of up to 35% at their distribution centres due to the state-imposed isolation requirements. 

The NSW government said workers in the agriculture, food logistics, transport and manufacturing sectors who had been forced to stay home as close contacts would be permitted to leave isolation if their employer determined their absence posed “a high risk of disruption to the delivery of critical services or activities”.

Workers will be required to wear a mask and conduct daily rapid antigen tests, with any worker who tests positive or develops symptoms ordered to self-isolate.

“The exemption from the isolation rules for close contacts also applies to emergency services workers who are necessary for the delivery of critical services and who cannot work from home,” NSW Health said in a statement.

Queensland said “essential workers” in critical industries would be allowed to work.

The Palaszczuk government said people would be required to attend work in personal protective equipment, be vaccinated and to use private transport to and from work.

NSW Industry Minister Stuart Ayres defended the changes and said the government was “not putting a single person who is testing positive to COVID out into the workforce”.

However unions have rejected this assertion, and accused the Morrison government of liaising with employers to reduce isolation requirements without consulting workers. 

The Transport Workers Union (TWU) national secretary, Michael Kaine, described scrapping isolation requirements as “reckless” and said it removed “the last buffer we had left to protect workplaces”.

“Close contacts are more likely now than ever to have the virus, because of Omicron and [the] definition of close contacts,” Kaine said. 

“The concern is they will be required to work. That means you have people [who are] the most likely to have the virus in workplaces,” he said. 

“There is a real danger here that this might make matters worse.”

Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) acting secretary Liam O’Brien said that “forcing potentially infected staff back to work will only exacerbate the already rampant spread of the highly infectious Omicron strain throughout workplaces and the broader community, putting the safety of all Australians at risk”.

Supply issues could last for weeks

On Sunday Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a meeting of cabinet’s national security committee to address the crisis, as supermarkets and retailers published public apologies to customers for shortages on shelves.

Despite the government’s limited ability to intervene on a federal level, reports suggest the meeting resulted in an agreement to extend isolation requirements beyond food supply chains to include aviation, essential services, child care and education. 

Several of the nation’s top ­retail chief executives reported to Treasury that their furloughed workforces had reached critical levels, with more than a third of workers sick with COVID-19 or classified as close contacts, according to The Australian. 

Retailers and the shop workers’ union on Sunday called for workers to be allowed out of isolation the moment they test negative for the virus. 

Bradford Banducci, chief executive of Woolworths, told ABC on Monday that customers would need to accept concessions due to stock shortages. 

“There is enough product in our supply chain to meet the needs of our customers [but] it might not always be their favourite brand unfortunately,” Banducci said. 

He said supply issues would likely last for the next two to three weeks as the country reaches the predicted peak in Omicron cases.

He noted he was taking a conservative estimate, with his team saying supply would be able to meet demand by the end of the week.

The Australian Retailers Association said access to rapid antigen tests needed to be a priority for workers, calling for them to be made free and immediately available for essential frontline retail and distribution centre workers.