Aged care workers across the country will be able to access two weeks’ paid pandemic leave from Wednesday, following an “urgent” ruling by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) in response to the growing number of coronavirus cases in aged care facilities in Victoria.
The FWC’s ruling on Monday applies to workers employed under the Aged Care Award, the Nurses Award and the Health Professionals Award, and will be in place for three months, starting Wednesday, July 29.
Workers will be able to access the paid leave if they need to self-isolate because they have coronavirus symptoms, or have been in close contact with someone with a confirmed case of the virus.
The paid leave is available to full-time and part-time employees, and casuals that have been “engaged on a regular and systematic basis”. For casuals, the payment will be based on average earnings over the previous six weeks.
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The leave entitlement comes with a number of conditions, including that workers must not be receiving any other income during their period of self-isolation, including other forms of leave or JobKeeper payments. Workers must also have already used all their other leave entitlements.
The leave is also only available to workers aged 17 or older, who would likely have worked during the self-isolation period, and workers will need to provide a medical certificate if they have been directed to self-isolate by a doctor, and not the government or their employer.
If a worker tests positive for coronavirus, workers’ compensation leave will take the place of the paid pandemic leave.
Employees who are able to work remotely will not be entitled to paid pandemic leave.
As of Monday, Victoria had 4,542 active cases of coronavirus, of which 683 are connected to outbreaks in 61 aged care facilities. There are also 400 active cases among healthcare workers.
Back in April, the FWC granted the right to unpaid pandemic leave to workers in other industries, covered by 99 workplace awards.
In its ruling this week, however, the commission said the growing number of coronavirus cases linked to aged care facilities in Victoria meant additional leave for workers in the aged care industry required “urgent” consideration.
“It cannot be assumed that the current outbreak will remain confined to Victoria,” said the commission.
“The recent events in that state demonstrate how rapidly circumstances can change.
“Recent developments in New South Wales are not encouraging. The award of the entitlement remains necessary notwithstanding that the current focus of the pandemic is in Victoria.”
Discussing the reasons for its decision, the commission reflected that “the requirement for self-isolation is primarily to prevent the spread of infection which, in the aged care sector, is especially critical because of the vulnerability of aged care persons to COVID-19 fatalities”.
Self-isolating is in the public interest, said the commission, however, an employee “bears the cost” if there is no leave available.
“For low-paid employees, this is likely to place them in significant financial difficulty, and even distress,” the commission said.
“Further … there is a real risk that employees who do not have access to leave entitlements might not report COVID-19 symptoms, which might require them to self-isolate, but rather seek to attend for work out of financial need.
“This represents a significant risk to infection control measures.”
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), the Health Services Union and the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation argued strongly for the leave to be available to aged care workers.
Representatives of the unions welcomed Monday’s decision, while also pointing out that not all workers in the sector will be covered, including those who are employed under enterprise agreements and casual workers with irregular hours.
“What this decision shows is that there is a need for paid pandemic leave, and while the economy is struggling it should be government-funded for all workers so no-one is even considering having to go to work with mild symptoms just to pay the bills,” said ACTU national secretary Sally McManus.
In Victoria, some workers are also eligible for the state government’s one-off coronavirus support payments of $1500 and $300, while the federal government has said it will provide financial support to aged care providers that need to pay casual staff sick leave or give staff additional shifts so they work in one location only.