Paid pandemic leave: still on the table?

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The Fair Work Commission is revisiting its position on paid pandemic leave, saying that circumstances have changed since it last rejected the proposal – but only for aged care workers

The Commission made a statement on Wednesday regarding its 8 July 2020 decision, in which it decided not to give the go-ahead to paid leave of up to two weeks for a range of health workers, including pharmacists and pharmacy assistants.

The Pharmacy Guild had submitted that pharmacy workers were no more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 than a range of other workers, such as those in retail, hospitality or schools.

Unions submitted evidence from experts including public health physician, epidemiologist and academic Professor Raina MacIntyre, who said health, aged care and disability care carry a magnified risk for employees.

After considering these submissions, the FWC decided not to amend the relevant awards to include such paid leave, in a move Pharmaceutical Society of Australia president Dr Chris Freeman, said “shows a complete lack of respect for pharmacists”.

However at the time, the FWC also said it would reconsider the matter if things changed on the COVID-19 front – which they now have.

“We did not dismiss the application because we accepted expert evidence that the position in respect of the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to radically change in a matter of weeks, and we pointed to then-recent developments in Victoria as representing a disturbing development,” the FWC said in this week’s new statement.

It said that there has now been a significant change in circumstances, citing the fact that as at 21 July 2020, there had been 296 new cases in the preceding 24 hours, of which 275 were in Victoria.

The FWC also noted that since the 8 July decision, there had been 17 additional deaths, and of the total of 123 deaths in Australia, 106 have been aged 70 years or over, and 40 have been residents of Australian government-subsidised residential aged care.

At 21 July, there were 3,026 active COVID-19 cases, of which 156 were hospitalised and 33 in intensive care, and 125 active cases in Australian government-subsidised residential aged care, all of which were in Victoria, it noted. At least 40 different aged care homes in the state had at least one active case.

The FWC also noted the Victorian Government’s announcement of 20 July 2020, in which it said there would be a one-off $1,500 payment to financially support Victorian aged care workers who have been instructed to self-isolate or quarantine at home because they are either diagnosed with COVID-19 or are a close contact of a confirmed case, but cannot rely on sick leave while absent from work.

The FWC now says that its provisional view is that the significant growth in COVID-19 cases since 8 July is a significant change which would justify paid pandemic leave in the Aged Care Award only.

It is now inviting stakeholders to provide submissions by 12pm on Friday 24 July 2020.

Earlier this week, Professional Pharmacists Australia issued a statement saying it would continue to call on the Federal Government “to pay for health industry workers who are required to isolate”.

It said that “pharmacy workers were at elevated risk because sick people congregate in pharmacies and pharmacies are relatively confined spaces so aerosol transmission is more of an issue of concern than say in larger retail facilities and outside”.

Meanwhile on Thursday, the Victorian Government announced that it would extend the coronavirus worker support payment, so that as soon as a person is tested they become eligible for an additional $300 support payment, provided they are already eligible for the $1,500 payment.

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