Paid pandemic leave is a great temporary measure but we also need long-term structural change
The Victorian Government has announced a $1500 worker support payment for any worker who has to quarantine due to Covid-19 who either have no entitlement to paid leave or who have exhausted their sick leave entitlement. This is a big step forward in protecting workers, particularly casuals, who would have otherwise gone without income while under direction to stay home for 14 days due to either having contracted the virus, or being in close contact with someone who has. Fear of lack of income has stopped many casual workers from being tested for Covid-19 in the first place, and a recent survey shows more than 10% of workers would still go to work if sick, in fear of losing either income or their job. This hardship payment will go a long way to maintaining strong public health measures and preventing greater spread of the virus.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is now calling for the federal government to provide paid pandemic leave across the board, which of course would be welcomed in relieving the financial burden on both workers and employers. Workers without leave entitlements would be protected, workers with entitlements wouldn’t have to run them down and employers wouldn’t have to cover leave payments at a rate likely higher than they had planned for. However, paid pandemic leave is nevertheless a short-term solution. What’s really needed is a re-think of the whole concept of casual work.
fear of lack of income or of losing their job has stopped casual employees from staying home from work when sick
Over 25 years in the workforce, I have had my fair share of insecure work. I’ve been ‘casual’ while working 50 hours a week in a restaurant, with no paid leave or entitlements; and I’ve been treated as a second-class worker while on a fixed-term contract, receiving less pay, entitlements and perks as the permanent staff with a well-known organisation. Currently I am a contractor, invoicing monthly for services provided. I’m well paid in my contract role, and I utterly love my job, but I’m also too big of a risk for my bank to give me a mortgage, as I recently found out. I’ve also seen insecure work from other angles: having worked in the union movement, listening to workers’ stories and fighting for their rights; worked in industrial relations for the federal government, providing advice to both employers and employees; and having been an employer of casual staff, as a small business owner. This is how I know the state of casual work is broken.
Casual workers are those who have no guarantee of ongoing work; the employment relationships starts and ends with each individual shift. They receive no paid personal, annual or bereavement leave entitlements (although they can take unpaid carer’s and bereavement leave with their employer’s agreement). In lieu of this job security and entitlements, causals are supposed to receive a higher rate of pay, usually a 25% loading on the base hourly rate. Back in March, Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter was criticised for saying that casuals should be fine without sick leave during the pandemic, because they would have ‘made provisions’ for such situations with their loading pay. The idea that casual workers living pay to pay, unsure when their next shift is and barely surviving, would have the ability to set aside funds for a rainy day showed how out of touch the government was from the realities of precarious work.
The Minister was correct that just under 25% of workers in Australia are casual; however, another 15% are temporary or gig workers, on short-term contracts, are labour hire or contractors. This means that 40% of all workers are in insecure work, unable — like me with my mortgage — to fully participate in the economic system, regardless of their individual circumstances. While having precarious workers might be good for a business’ short-term bottom line, it does little to create the type of loyalty and engagement that leads to productivity gains and innovation.
I’m well paid in my contract role, but according to my bank, my job is too insecure for them to give me a mortgage
Staff who are worried about how they are going to pay the rent or what happens when their current contract runs out are unlikely to be performing at their best. In these pandemic times, having staff without access to paid leave increases the risk of sick staff coming to work, infecting customers and colleagues, damaging businesses in the process and putting lives and livelihoods at risk. Precarious workers are often the first to decrease consumption, and every Fordist knows business won’t survive long if their own workers can’t afford to buy the products they produce — and this principle applies across the whole economy. The reason we are seeing GDP decline at the moment is not only due to rising unemployment, but also because those who are still employed are hanging onto every cent they can, in case things get worse.
Employing casual and precarious workers as a deliberate business model is an idea whose time has passed. Not only does it make no long-term financial sense, but it is destabilising for both the national economy and the community as a whole. All workers deserve job security and paid leave, and businesses would be better off for it, too. One of the things I would do differently if I had my small business over again would be to not employ casuals. I would find a way to make sure all my staff had security and entitlements, rather than only half having so.
We are too evolved as a species to continue to have two tiers of workers — those lucky enough to have permanent jobs, and everyone else. Even if a worker only does one shift a week, there’s no rational reason for them to be employed on a casual basis. Pandemic leave is a great temporary measure during the current crisis, and I sincerely hope the federal government rolls it out across the country. But in the long term, we need to get rid of casual employment, and make sure all workers are on an equal footing. This would allow them to have job security, proper work-life balance through leave entitlements, and to be able to participate fully in the economy; not to mention improved productivity for employers and better stability across the economy.