Small business groups are backing the NSW government’s controversial push to scrap a law that gives frontline staff easy access to workers compensation if they catch COVID-19.
Alexi Boyd, chief executive of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA), says it is “appropriate” to wind back certain protections now that restrictions have eased and vaccination rates are high.
“Those protections were emergency measures put in place at the peak of the pandemic, so it’s appropriate that they are wound back now,” Boyd tells SmartCompany.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet wants to repeal the section of the NSW Workers Compensation Act which automatically presumes a worker, in a range of industries, contracted COVID-19 in the course of their employment, entitling them to workers compensation.
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The law covers workers in the retail, hospitality, construction and cleaning industries, in addition to a range of mostly public sector industries such health care, disability and aged care, police and emergency services.
Boyd says reverting back to the normal principles for workers compensation liability for COVID-19 will still allow staff members to claim for work-related infection.
“It will still allow employees to claim for compensation but it also means that business owners won’t be automatically held responsible if someone gets COVID-19,” she says.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet is calling on the opposition to support repealing the amendments, which he said would save businesses more than half a billion dollars in premiums.
Perrottet said when the NSW government made the amendments last year, there was little information about how COVID-19 was spread, and the vaccine rollout hadn’t begun.
“Now that the economy is steadily reopening, we want businesses investing in new staff and higher wages, not inflated insurance bills,” Perrotet said.
NSW Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations Sophie Cotsis, however, has come out in opposition to the proposed changes, saying they are “a stab in the back for the tens of thousands of workers fighting COVID”.
“Mr Perrottet expects a hospital cleaner who fell sick fighting COVID-19 to then have to fight iCare too… This will impact on health workers, nurses, cleaners, bus drivers, retail and hospital workers,” Cotsis said.
The NSW State Insurance Regulatory Authority (SIRA) expects that the cost of workers compensation claims by people infected by COVID-19 will reach $638 million in the 12 months after restrictions ease.
NSW has already paid $7.8 million for COVID-19-related workers compensation claims, equating to about $15.6 million.
The highest number of claims in the state has been in retail, accommodation and food services, transport, public administration and safety, and health care industries.
With the number of workers compensation claims expected to rise, there is a growing risk that workers will take legal action against their employers if they get sick at work.
Tim McDonald, employment lawyer and principal at McCabes, says businesses will continue to need to take steps to eliminate the risk of their staff contracting COVID-19 at work.
“Under health and safety legislation, employers are required to take steps to eliminate or minimise the risk of COVID-19,” McDonald tells SmartCompany.
“Now the most straightforward way of doing that is mandating vaccinations but there are other measures such as more frequent testing and mask wearing,” he adds.
McDonald says employers should consider setting up a vaccine policy if they haven’t already because of their duty to ensure staff and customers are safe.
“I would encourage employers to engage in a reasonable dialogue with their staff,” he says.