Working With COVID: Insecure Jobs, Sick Pay, and Public Health

by Dan Nahum and Jim Stanford

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 published by the Centre for Future Work.

The research confirms the public health dangers of Australia’s existing patchwork system of sick leave and related entitlements.

The main findings of the report, based on a poll of 1000 Australians, include:

  • 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, 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 confirms 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, it is not surprising that 18% of workers did not feel safe attending their normal workplaces during the pandemic.

This research indicates that Australia’s sick pay entitlements are clearly inadequate to protect workers’ health and safety at work and allow them 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 this 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.

Full report