One in Five Worked with COVID Symptoms; Sick Leave Entitlements Must Be Strengthened

Almost one in five Australians (and a higher proportion of young workers) acknowledge working with potential COVID symptoms over the course of the pandemic, according to new opinion research released today by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work.

The research confirms the public health dangers of Australia’s patchwork system of sick leave and related entitlements, as new ABS data released today indicates 32% of Australian households had one or more members exhibiting COVID symptoms in April.

Key Findings:

  • More than one in three (37%) employed Australians have no access to statutory paid sick leave entitlements (including workers hired under casual employment arrangements, and self-employed workers). Another 12% had access only to pro-rated part-time entitlements.
  • When the pandemic hit Australia, therefore, barely half (51%) of employed workers could count on regular full-time income if they had to stay home from work.
  • Almost one in five respondents (19%), and a higher proportion of young workers (29%), acknowledged working with potential COVID symptoms at some point during the pandemic. This highlights the public health dangers of Australia’s patchwork system of sick leave and related entitlements.
  • Polling results also confirm that a significant proportion of workers (17%) also attended work after exposure to someone possibly infected with COVID.
  • Given inadequate sick pay entitlements and the surprising share of workers attending work in violation of public health advice, perhaps it is not surprising that 18% of workers did not feel safe attending their normal workplaces during the pandemic.
  • Australia’s sick pay entitlements are clearly inadequate to allow workers to stay home from work when health advice requires it. The expansion of non-standard and insecure forms of work (including part-time work, casual jobs, contractor positions, and ‘gigs’) has heightened concern that many workers do not have the effective ability to stay home from work for health reasons.
  • Government should expand sick pay entitlements to cover all workers, and also implement strategies to limit and reduce the incidence of insecure work: including by constraining employers’ use of ‘permanent casual’ arrangements, sham contracting, and on-demand gigs, none of which provide normal and healthy paid leave entitlements.
  • Unfortunately, the current Federal Government has done the opposite by reinforcing the shift toward insecure working arrangements – including through its 2021 amendments to the Fair Work Act, which cemented and expanded employers’ rights to hire workers on a casual basis (with no sick pay) in virtually any job they wish.

“Our research shows that too many workers are not following public health guidelines and isolation instructions, to the detriment of their own health, and the health of their colleagues and the broader community,” said Dr Jim Stanford, economist and director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work.

“Millions of workers have either used up all the paid sick leave they are entitled to, or do not receive sick pay entitlements in the first place. There is no doubt this has contributed to the epidemic of people attending work with possible COVID symptoms.

“With incomplete sick leave coverage, workers face a devil’s choice: between staying home to protect themselves, their colleagues and the public; or going to work regardless simply to make ends meet.

“The policy implications of this analysis are clear. The government needs to expand sick pay entitlements to cover all workers, including those in casual employment and self-employed situations.”

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