“Many small retailers are not opening every day”: Business groups urge government to rethink axed COVID-19 isolation payment amid staff shortage

restaurant payment

As federal and state leaders prepare for an emergency meeting to address rising COVID-19 case numbers, retail and hospitality groups are urging the government to reconsider financial support for workers forced to self-isolate.

The Morrison government’s Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment scheme, which provided $750-a-week lump sum payments to workers required to self-isolate after testing positive for COVID-19, expired on June 30.

All told, the scheme reportedly cost $1.9 billion.

Citing the end of most pandemic restrictions and budgetary pressures inherited by the new Labor government and, Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt last week said letting the scheme run out was a prudent decision.

However, as COVID-19 cases surge around the country, casual workers fear they will be left without income or support payments should they test positive for the virus.

Business groups call for “revised scheme” as labour shortages bite

The end of the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment has also worried industry groups, who are already facing severe price increases and a labour shortage.

Belinda Clarke, CEO of the Restaurant & Catering Industry Association (R&CA), says workers who exhausted their leave entitlements would have relied on the payment to get by.

“There may be concerns that without this safety net, the could be an increased spread of COVID-19 among hospitality staff which would strain the labour force in our industry,” Clarke told SmartCompany.

Small businesses who hire casual staff likely stretched thin, Clarke adds, meaning any return to paid pandemic leave schemes must be bankrolled by the government.

“With the crippling skilled shortage, and inflationary pressures on small business, the last thing this industry need is for the government to cost-shift their responsibility to struggling family businesses,” she said.

Pandemic leave payments were a “valuable measure” which propped up workers who needed to isolate, says Paul Zahra, CEO of the Australian Retailers Association (ARA).

Like the R&CA, the ARA “would support a revised scheme that’s targeted towards people who need it most, like those workers who might not be eligible for sick leave”, Zahra tells SmartCompany.

As the end of COVID-19 isolation payments put casual workers in an agonising position, Zahra says ongoing labour shortages are “putting a handbrake” on businesses.

“The impacts are that many small retailers are not opening every day and are limiting their trading hours,” he said.

That claim is borne out by the latest labour force data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

While Thursday’s headlines centred on a 48-year low unemployment rate and a rising number of employed Australians, the total number of hours worked remained stubbornly level in June.

“There were around 780,000 people working fewer hours than usual due to own illness in June 2022, almost double the usual number we see at the start of winter,” said Bjorn Jarvis, the ABS’ head of labour statistics.

State premiers to test Albanese government on reinstated support payments

Business groups, workers, and union leaders are not the only ones concerned about the funding drop-off.

In a significant test for the Albanese government, Queensland’s Labor Premier Annastacia Palazczuk has publicly advocated for the federal government to reconsider its approach to the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment.

Speaking to reporters on Friday morning, NSW’s Liberal Premier Dominic Perrottet also said it was “unfair” for the government not to provide financial support to those whose ability to work was hampered by government restrictions.

“There needs to be financial support for those who need it but in a way that balances out with the Public Health Orders that have been made and will continue to be made as we move through this next phase of COVID,” Perrottet told reporters.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has confirmed National Cabinet will meet on Monday to discuss surging case numbers, with the federal government’s pandemic leave funding decisions sure to hit the meeting’s agenda.


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