Finance Work Coronavirus outbreak: What the contagion means for workers’ rights

Coronavirus outbreak: What the contagion means for workers’ rights

Workers could be affected by the spread of the coronavirus.
Canberra has no active coronavirus cases – seven weeks after recording its first. Photo: The New Daily
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More than 30 Australians are confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus, leaving workers and businesses worried about how the spread of the disease might affect them. 

Small business owners don’t know how they will afford to pay wages when their doors are shuttered, and workers are worried they will lose income if they are told to self-quarantine.

Almost 90,000 people have been infected by the extremely contagious virus worldwide, with more than 3000 people losing their lives to the flu-like disease it causes.

Qantas has already taken the drastic step of grounding a number of its planes as nervous travellers reconsider their plans – and the airline has told staff on affected flights to use their annual or long service leave to make up for the lost income. 

“We’ve seen some weakness in domestic demand emerge in February,” Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce told investors at the company’s half-year results meeting.

“As a result, our group domestic capacity will reduce by just over 2 per cent in the second half. We’ll also cut trans-Tasman capacity by about 6 per cent.

“In the meantime, we’ll minimise the impact of reduced flying on our people by using annual leave – tapping into what is a significant balance across Qantas.”

If the outbreak isn’t contained soon, many other workers – and the businesses employing them – could face similar scenarios.

qantas virgin airports
Alan Joyce has said workers will need to take annual leave. Photo: Getty

Workers’ rights in an outbreak

Under the Fair Work Act, workers and employers have different rights and obligations regarding pay and leave depending on why the worker can’t come in.

Generally, in cases where a worker has caught coronavirus or is caring for somebody else that has, normal sick or carer’s leave rules will apply.

Workers who have already used up their paid sick or carer’s leave can also take unpaid carer’s leave if they need more time away from work.

Casual workers are entitled to two days of unpaid carer’s leave per occasion.

Employers have the right to demand evidence of “illness or unexpected emergency” under any of these arrangements – paid or unpaid – and business owners are required by law to “ensure the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace”.

Although that means employers will sometimes want their staff to stay at home, it doesn’t mean it can refuse to pay their staff. 

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, “where an employer directs a full-time or part-time employee not to work, the employee would ordinarily be entitled to be paid while subject to the direction.”

The only times an employer has the right to stand down their staff without pay are when equipment breaks down, strikes occur, or work stops for reasons beyond the employer’s control. 

The Fair Work Act’s rules aren’t as clear cut in instances where an employee is stranded overseas or placed into quarantine.

Workers and employers will instead need to come to their own arrangement.

Which is why trade unionists have called on the government to provide clearer guidelines and guarantee income for those who may lose money as a result of going into quarantine.

It’s important to note these rules can be influenced by individual contracts and enterprise bargaining agreements.

Labour force could take sizeable hit

Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy has said it’s too early to predict how many Australians could catch the virus.

But Australasian Virology Society secretary Peter Speck told The New Daily estimates range from 10 to 50 per cent of the population.

Although he wouldn’t make any predictions, Dr Speck, who is also an associate professor at Flinders University, said “it wouldn’t be surprising” if that range proved accurate.

Meanwhile, modelling by Australian National University professor Warwick McKibbin shows infection rates will affect the supply of labour.

Professor McKibbin told The New Daily this happens in two ways. 

“In the aggregate economy, there are some people who die, and those people never work again,” he said.

“Then there are some people who get sick (which we call morbidity), and when you’re sick we assume you don’t work for a number of days.”

People taking time out to care for sick relatives and friends has a similar effect on the labour force as simply being sick, and these people are also accounted for in Professor McKibbin’s model.

Assuming 10 per cent of the population becomes infected, the model suggests labour supply would fall 0.48 per cent over the course of a year.

If the morbidity rate rises to 20 per cent, labour supply would fall by 1.01 per cent, while a 30 per cent morbidity rate would result in a 1.58 per cent drop.

Those numbers might not seem big, but they would result in Australia’s GDP for 2020 falling between 2.1 per cent and 7.9 per cent.

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