Workers in Victoria who need to self-isolate because they have coronavirus will now be able to access paid pandemic leave in the form of a ‘disaster payment’ provided by the federal government.
After consulting on the issue of paid pandemic leave last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Monday the government will provide payments of $1500 to individuals who need to go into isolation for 14 days but have used up all their sick leave.
It comes after the Fair Work Commission last week granted two weeks’ paid pandemic leave to aged care workers, and an earlier decision by the commission in April that gave workers covered by 99 workplace awards access to unpaid pandemic leave.
Speaking during a press conference on Monday afternoon, Morrison said the payments would work in a similar way to those offered to families during the bushfires.
“Earlier this year, when we were confronting the bushfires, we made a number of additional disaster payments, particularly for children and families affected by bushfires,” he said.
“What we’re dealing with here is a disaster and we need to respond on the basis of the way we provide support in the midst of disasters.
“This pandemic is a disaster and we need a disaster payment when it comes to people who have to isolate for a period of 14 days through no fault of their own, regardless of what job they’re in or employment they’re in.”
Intended to “supplement and support” the Victorian government’s existing hardship payments, workers will be able to access the $1500 payment more than once in the event they need to isolate on more than one occasion.
Individuals can apply for the payments over the phone from Wednesday, by calling Services Australia on 180 22 66, with Morrison saying the money “should be turned around fairly quickly”.
“That means that those who need to self-isolate as a result of an instruction by a public health officer, there is no economic reason for you to go to work,” he added.
The Prime Minister said the payment will be “modelled on exactly the same set of criteria that the Victorian government has put in place” and the government expects the payments will largely be made to workers on short-term visas, or workers who are not permanent residents or Australian citizens and therefore not eligible for other forms of income support.
The cost of the payments will be shared by the Victorian and Commonwealth governments, said Morrison, with The Guardian reporting that Victoria will cover the cost of payments for temporary visa holders, and the Commonwealth will look after payments for permanent residents and citizens.
Morrison said the government is also encouraging the Victorian government to put in place “appropriate penalties” for people who go to work when they have been told to self-isolate.
“They’re putting their workmates at risk. They’re putting their employer’s business at risk. They’re putting the broader health at risk,” he said.
The payments will only be available to Victorian workers, because as a ‘disaster payment’, they are specifically tied to Victoria being in a declared state of disaster. However, Morrison said if “a disaster of this scale” was to happen in other states and territories, then similar arrangements would be made.
While Victoria’s current coronavirus restrictions are in place for a period of six weeks, Morrison said the is no endpoint for these payments at this stage.
“It’ll be there for as long as the government says it is there as a disaster — we’ve left it open-ended at this point,” he said.
“Once the pandemic disaster is … returned to the sort of situation you’re seeing in other states currently, then that’s when disaster payments traditionally are no longer applied.
“But we anticipate that this payment will be needed for some time, and it will be made available until for as long as it’s necessary.”
Earlier on Monday, the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Council of Trade Unions came together to urge Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter to introduce a comprehensive pandemic leave system, paid for by federal and state governments and modelled on the leave entitlement granted to aged care workers by the Fair Work Commission.
In a letter to the Porter, the councils said a national scheme could be achieved by amending the Fair Work Act, and introducing a system whereby employers are reimbursed for providing the payments, in a similar way to JobKeeper or parental leave payments.
“For many workers who have no or inadequate sick leave, the cost of isolating can be particularly burdensome,” they said.
“Furthermore, whilst many businesses have implemented policies to provide for paid pandemic leave, not all are able to do so given the cost, especially in the current circumstances where workers are often required to isolate and get tested on multiple occasions.”
Last week small business ombudsman Kate Carnell described paid pandemic leave as “a good thing to do, if we can encourage people to get tested and stay at home”.
However, Carnell said small businesses can’t afford to cover the costs of such leave.
“Yes, the government should pay,” said Carnell at the National Press Club.
“I mean, why wouldn’t the government pay if the government is suggesting this is what should happen?”