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Paid sick leave for casuals in the spotlight

Asian girl with glasses waitress wearing apron standing in coffee shop.

The Morrison Government is under pressure to provide a paid sick leave option for casual workers to ensure they aren’t forced to choose between self-isolating for the health and safety of the general public and making a living.

Australians are being encouraged to self-isolate for 14 days if they believe they have symptoms of COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, and have travelled to certain affected countries in recent weeks, or come into contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the virus.

But many believe that casual workers, who don’t get paid if they call in sick, are unlikely to self-isolate if it means losing their income.

In an announcement on Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Government would waive the waiting period to access Centrelink’s Sickness Allowance for casual workers unable to work – significantly less than the two-weeks of sick leave pay recommended by the ACTU.

National secretary for the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) Gerard Dwyer is calling on the government to help employers fund sick leave for casual workers who have to self-isolate due to public health concerns.

“Sick people should not be incentivised to go to work,” Dwyer told Inside Retail.

“It is incredibly important for all workers to be able to access sick leave so that they can self-isolate to protect themselves and the community from the spread of COVID-19.”

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter, however, had been non-committal on the topic of paid sick leave for casual workers in interviews over the past two days.

“Everyone has said that there is going to be a rush of people running into work who are casuals, even though they feel sick or could get corona or are in an isolation group. I don’t accept that. I don’t accept that at all. I think people, by and large, behave very very responsibly and sensibly,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

According to Porter, casual workers make up roughly a quarter of the Australian workforce. He also noted that casual workers are paid at a higher hourly rate in lieu of receiving entitlements, such as paid sick leave. He also said there are other ways to support casuals forced to self-isolate besides revamping the industrial relations system.

“There are already mechanisms inside a very broad and very stable welfare system that you could possibly look at, but we’re not at the point now where we need to activate any of those. We are at the point where we are trying to understand what might be the best scalable responses if those problems do arise,” he said.

“What I’m kind of disinclined to do is over-respond too early and create entirely new systems without actually seeing the extent of the problem.”

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