Opinion Cruelty by design: Morrison’s pandemic leave payments hit workers health and incomes
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Cruelty by design: Morrison’s pandemic leave payments hit workers health and incomes

covid spike federal budget
The federal budget provides funding to prepare for an expected COVID-19 spike in winter. Photo: Getty
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Omicron is ripping through workplaces, reducing staffing in essential industries by up to 50 per cent. Emergency services, distribution, and garbage collection face growing shortages. Hospitals are plunging into deeper crisis. Supply chains buckling.

Among the rubble is our nation’s chance to recognise the policies which are failing our nation’s workers and rebuild a better normal for us all.

Colossal policy failures led us here. The federal government spent years weakening public health orders, insisting we “live with the virus” without providing tools to do so. Governance characterised by narrow backwards-calculations protecting short-term interests, and not on preventing this full-blown crisis.

Once we had public health orders to stop transmission. Now, we face government orders of an entirely different kind: forced to work. And changes to the pandemic leave payment confirmed yesterday by the federal government will help.

Pandemic leave is the last federally funded payment left after prematurely phasing-out COVID supports last year. Casuals or workers without sick leave can receive payment up to $750 for one-week isolation if they, or a dependent, contracts COVID. The payment now covers isolating close contacts, and accepts RATs.

Critical problems in the testing regime remain. There’s no coherent national reporting system, and scarce RAT supplies are only available at jacked-up prices, making tests unattainable for frontline workers who need them most.

Cruelly dividing Australian society

True to this government’s poor-bashing form, from January 18, COVID-impacted workers receiving any social security payment like JobSeeker or Youth Allowance will be ineligible for paid pandemic leave.

Current federal COVID payments create two classes: a seemingly “deserving” group receiving support while recovering from a potentially debilitating virus. And an “undeserving” group – many of whom will keep working. Pre-Omicron there were 500,000 working social security recipients in Australia.

By omitting social security recipients and short-hours workers, the federal government has worked to exclude the highest COVID risk groups – the very people whose safety and welfare ought to be in the community’s best interest. They’re disproportionately represented in insecure jobs without sick leave, and strongly represented in high physical proximity sectors such as disability and aged care.

However, welfare status exclusion is apparently not bureaucratic enough for this government, which complains about ‘red tape’. Means-testing based on hours worked will also serve to determine payment rates.

The full $750 payment is for workers losing 20 or more hours work before contracting COVID. $450 is paid for 8-20 hours lost. Rostered for less than eight hours before getting sick? Zero payment. Hold $10,000 in savings? You’re ineligible.

It’s not just the burden of COVID infection that’s unjust. Workers losing work to isolation and infection take a huge economic hit.

Based on ABS average weekly earnings, a healthcare worker isolating or infected without sick leave makes $417 less income per week, on pandemic leave. Transport and warehousing workers earn $802 less per week. Retail workers $52 less.

Women also bear the brunt of these repeat-hits to health and income. It’s a toxic cocktail. Women are concentrated in high-physical-proximity industries, casual roles, and among welfare recipients excluded from federal leave support.

The gender pay gap between all workers widened to almost one-third last year. With women losing income from rising infections – their own, their kids, and vulnerable people they care for – “living with COVID” will strike a permanent blow to gender inequality in 2022.

Make no mistake, when it comes to weaponising policy, the federal government wastes no opportunities.

Policy omni-shambles

Divisive and arbitrarily exclusionary policy is its go-to pandemic playbook. And the consequences for workers, public health, and the economy are dire.

Getting out of this pandemic omni-shambles means facing reality. COVID is not an aberration. There’s no pre-COVID “normal” return on the horizon. Sickness and chronic precarity is our future until we can organise work and life differently.

With an election looming, the federal government needs distractions from one of the worst policy failures in history. Their electoral crisis is short-term. But waves of infection, death, income loss, and yo-yoing economic activity is anything but. Our crisis is permanent.

That means building long-term solutions. Paid pandemic leave must be available to all workers, paid at the $750 rate. It is two years into this pandemic and one-third of all workers are still without sick leave rights.

With the profit share of GDP now the highest in recorded history, at nearly 30 per cent, business should be expected to bear the cost of pandemic-proofing workers’ jobs. A new universal sick leave entitlement is a start.

Insecure work has been COVID’s vector from day dot. Jobs must be re-designed to reduce transmission and improve public health. Rather than give business free rein to treat workers as disposable inputs to production, let’s legislate for permanent jobs.

Planning, co-ordination and persistent vigilance is critical to tackling COVID at work. Let’s create skills and infection-control plans underpinned by a new industry collective bargaining system. Mandatory PPE, free RATs, air filtration, and COVID-safe rostering implemented through work and safety laws.

Finally, we must provide stronger income floors for the most vulnerable. The COVID Supplement of $550 per fortnight should be reinstated, and eligibility expanded to include migrants, and those on DSP and carer payments.

COVID is our opportunity to create a new and better normal.

Alison Pennington is a senior economist at the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work.