PM’s emergency step on COVID measures as winter sick leave surge hits

Amid growing pressure from state premiers to change course on a controversial cut to pandemic payments for casual workers, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has convened an urgent national cabinet meeting on Monday.

Mr Albanese has recently softened his rhetoric on the payments, made to workers who do not have sick leave entitlements, as state premiers – including Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk and Tasmania’s Jeremy Rockliff – joined a growing chorus calling for them to be reinstated.

It comes amid revelation hundreds of thousands of Australian workers are forfeiting their incomes in near-record numbers as the rising coronavirus wave and the flu season keep them from work.

Some 776,000 Australians worked fewer hours in June due to illness, an ABS workforce report released on Wednesday found. That nearly equalled May’s historic high and represented more than twice the number affected two years ago.

Workers’ use of sick leave in June was 35 per cent above the long-term national seasonal trend, according to data provided to The New Daily by MYOB, a software company.

Mr Albanese’s refusal to extend pandemic leave disaster payments for workers already denied sick leave entitlements has drawn criticism from unions and doctors.

The $750 payment has gone to casuals unable to work due to COVID-19 isolation. But it ended at the beginning of this month.

Unions have also pressured the Labor government to reinstate the payments, which they say was a pandemic safety net for Australian workers.

“The recovery from the pandemic is not being shared across the economy,” said Liam O’Brien, the assistant secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

“We are seeing a record level of people missing work due to illness, and all indications are that it is getting worse.

“This is not the time to be pulling supports like the disaster leave payment and free RATs that allow workers to keep themselves and their communities safe.”

The NSW Labor leader Chris Minns broke ranks with his federal colleagues to call on the Albanese government to reverse its decision.

“I think there needs to be an urgent rethink of the $750 payment from the federal government,” he said in Sydney on Wednesday. “This payment is probably the price that we need to pay in order to deal with living with COVID over the next 12 months.”

The Australian Medical Association said scrapping the payments would undermine pandemic management plans as sick people who felt forced to continue working potentially caused new infections.

Aged Care Minister Anika Wells said on Thursday “all options” were being considered.

Notwithstanding, Ms Wells said the government had been advised that money would be better spent on antiviral medication and vaccinations.

About 2.4 million Australians are employed on casual contracts and lack entitlements such as sick leave.

But when the figure is expanded to include self-employed Australians, some 37 per cent of Australian workers now have no statutory sick leave entitlements and another 12 per cent only part-time entitlements, an Australia Institute study found.

As schools prepare to begin the next term coping with a projected massive spike in absent students, workers especially women are being forced out of the workplace as illness causes a sudden childcare shortage.