Australia Needs Universal Paid Sick Leave To Get Through the Pandemic

by Alison Pennington

Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy recently issued a directive that going to work with the ‘sniffles’ is ‘off the agenda for every Australian in the foreseeable future.’ But with millions of workers without access to paid sick leave, government plans to lift restrictions on economic activity could risk dangerous and costly outbreaks. 

In this commentary, which originally appeared in 10 Daily, Centre for Future Work Senior Economist Alison Pennington discusses the consequences of low paid sick leave coverage for worker safety and public health efforts during the pandemic, and reviews the merits of a universal paid sick leave scheme to address both COVID-19 and precarious work.

‘No More Heroics Going To Work Sick’ Sounds Fine Unless You Have No Paid Leave

Remember the Codral ‘soldier on’ television commercial? “With Codral you can soldier on”.

In 2008 a concerned citizen on a WA hospital pandemic influenza committee complained to the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB), worried the ‘soldier on’ message would ingrain community habits that could undermine emergency efforts during a national/international pandemic.

The ASB dismissed the complaint, agreeing that Codral was designed to self-medicate for “sniffles”, not for more serious influenza symptoms.

Now fast-forward to the present day. The world is facing a global pandemic. It’s clear the decision has not aged well.

Outlining plans to get people back to work, Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy announced last week “no more heroics”. Going to work with a sniffle is now “off the agenda for every Australian for the foreseeable future”.

I welcome Murphy’s sentiment. Changing social attitudes and behaviours is key to infection control.

But sentiment isn’t policy.

Murphy’s public health directive is out of touch with the reality for working Australians who, Codral or not, continue to soldier on in a labour market marred by precarity, low wages, and jobs without basic sick leave protections.

In fact, more than 3.3 million workers have no access to sick leave – almost one in three workers. This includes almost one-quarter of the workforce employed on a casual basis. One million more are independent contractors, including many so-called ‘gig workers’ — better described as misclassified employees like food delivery drivers.

Casuals without sick leave are often the most vulnerable workers in the economy. As unemployment surges they will feel increasingly pressured to work every shift they can. There are real financial consequences of taking unpaid leave from the workplace. The bills don’t stop rolling in. Rent needs to be paid.

Even before the pandemic, going to work sick is not some benign workplace habit. Taking sick leave is perceived by many bosses as a lack of commitment to the job. Workers are often punished for absences with diminished opportunities and disciplinary performance management akin to bullying. This fuels high levels of presenteeism — even for those with sick leave entitlements.

The new COVID-19 work regime is exposing society-wide risks of unequal sick leave coverage. About 30 percent of the workforce have the potential to work from home — predominantly professionals, managers and administrative workers. Insulated from contagion, remote workers are paid almost 25 percent more than those working outside the home. They’re more likely to be permanent, full-time workers with sick leave.

Meanwhile millions of essential workers across supermarkets, transport, cleaning and community and social services go to work each day exposed to both income precarity and higher viral loads, all without the ‘safety’ of sick leave and secure work.

The common factor in the two major workplace COVID-19 outbreaks at Cedar Meats and Newmarch House aged-care facility is labour hire: on-call work with no guarantee of future shifts. And no sick leave.

To put it bluntly: in a pandemic, insecure jobs with no sick leave will literally kill people.

The Fair Work Commission introduced two weeks unpaid sick leave for half the private sector workforce in April. Unpaid sick leave is, however, useless in preventing workers coming to work unwell if the outcome of sickness is still financial punishment.

This is why Australia needs universal paid sick leave: a system that allows for up to four weeks of leave to account for the full incubation, treatment and recovery lifecycle of COVID-19.

It’s easy to do this. The New Zealand Ardern Government introduced a sick leave scheme for all NZ businesses, organisations and self-employed people under hardship due to COVID-19 from day dot. Australian policymakers have been slow to act on sick leave reform, but it can act now.

A universal sick leave scheme can be publicly funded and transferred to employers at a future date when they’re in better shape. To signal the transfer of obligations, the entitlement should be entered into the National Employment Standards (NES) — the set of minimum employment conditions covering all employees — with an additional scheme for independent contractors not covered by the NES.

The elephant in the room is that government intends to plough on with a ‘bosses knows best’ industrial relations agenda that would expand casual jobs (without sick leave), cut wages, and undermine workplace coordination needed to contain the disease.

But it will be impossible to resume economic activity without universal paid sick leave — lest we risk dangerous and costly outbreaks.

Trust, discipline and sacrifice has been demonstrated by Australians to flatten the curve and ensure community safety. It’s time government reflected this good will in people’s working lives.

The virus doesn’t care about the employment status of its host. We must combine principles of public health with safe, secure jobs.

Taking a codral won’t help us soldier on through this pandemic. Legislating universal paid sick leave will.

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