Casual work will change due to the pandemic, here’s what we need to consider in the short and long term.
UPDATE 28th July: The FWC approved its provisional view to allow two weeks paid pandemic leave for employees under the Aged Care Award. The variation will be in place for three months starting July 29. You can read the full decision here.
In 2008, an anonymous complaint was made to the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) regarding a Codral “Soldier On” comercial. In the commercial a man “soldiers on” to work despite suffering from a cold or flu. The ad closes with a voice over saying “Don’t let colds or flu steal your day away from you”.
The ASB dismissed the complaint, but if it were made today, it would probably strike most of us as common sense. The complaint says Codral’s advertisement went against “social distancing” guidelines and encourages employees to attend work where they will likely spread their sickness.
During this pandemic, we are explicitly told not to soldier on. “No more heroics of coming to work with a cough and a cold and a sore throat. That’s off the agenda for every Australian for the foreseeable future,” said chief medical officer Brendan Murphy in May this year.
But the decision to stay home is not so easy for many Australians. Over two million are casually employed and for some of them the choice is between staying home sick or being able to afford rent and food.
There are a growing number of people who are saying COVID-19 is forcing us to take a hard look at casual work, both in the short and long term.
In a recent press conference Victorian premier Daniel Adrews acknowledged the difficulty facing many casual and freelance workers.
“There is a large proportion of these people who are making these choices [to go to work despite symptoms] because, in their judgment, they’ll look at their bank balance, they’ll look at the fact that if they don’t work the shift, they won’t get paid for the shift.”
Andrews said there was a need for further conversations about the precariousness of casual work, but in the meantime urged employees to take advantage of the state’s $1500 Worker Support Payment. The payment is open to employees who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or forced to self-isolate because they have had close contact with a confirmed case.
A separate support payment is offered to those who miss work while waiting for COVID-19 results, which can take up to 72 hours. The payment of $300 will likely go a long way to encouraging casual workers to stay home but for a minimum wage earner over 21, three days of work could amount to almost $550. For some that money would be the difference between affording rent that week and not.
Queenslanders have access to a similar payment, but again only if they have tested positive for COVID-19. The other states don’t offer such a scheme.
Unions have advocated for the introduction of paid sick leave since the pandemic started and it seems, for some higher-risk workers, the FWC is listening. A full bench is considering varying the aged care award to include paid pandemic leave, despite dismissing calls for the same provisions for the public health sector.
If instituted the entitlement would “apply to casual employees engaged on a regular and systematic basis, and would entitle them to payment based on an average of their earnings over the previous six weeks”. The variation is proposed for a period of three months.
The variation would allow for two weeks paid leave on each occasion the worker has to self-isolate. In the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ (ACTU) initial application on the matter they called for “paid day of leave on each occasion the employee is tested for COVID-19” unless the test happens in the workplace within the workers usual hours.
One in four Australians are employed casually yet there is a tendency to associate casual workers with low paid, low skill jobs. While many casual positions are entry level, the recent Workpac cases (Workpac v Skene and Workpac v Rossato) have highlighted how casuals – often labelled with the unofficial term “permanent casuals” – are used across all kinds of sectors and levels of skills.
On the one hand, societal opinions of casuals seem to be changing during this pandemic. Delivery drivers and supermarket employees were frequently labeled “essential”. But, as HRM has written about before, many likely didn’t perceive themselves this way.
In the July edition of HRM, Professor Katie Bailey, head of the HRM and Employment Relations Group at King’s Business School, King’s College London spoke about the difficulty of finding meaning in casual work. Her research showed that the belief that your work was meaningful was undermined by job insecurity, health risks, low pay and a lack of autonomy – all hallmarks of lower skilled casual work.
“At the end of the day, for as long as we’ve got these jobs that are highly insecure, it’s very difficult for people in them to find a sense of meaningfulness,” said Bailey.
To rectify this issue, and make essential work essential to the workers, she believes “a fundamental reappraisal of the way we structure employment” is required. Andrews hinted at the same in his press conference.
Some of the most persistent criticisms of JobKeeper are to do with how it interacts with casual workers. Those who had worked with an organisation for fewer than 12 months (as of March this year) are ineligible for the wage subsidy. The Australia Institute claims 723,700 lost their job due to this.
The new JobKeeper changes have kept the same eligibility requirements for casuals, and they are likely to hit the pockets of even those casuals who are eligible. If they worked fewer than 20 hours they will be placed on the lower tier payment.
Interestingly, Brendan Coates and Jonathan Nolan from the Grattan Institute believe they’ve found a loophole for part-time and casual workers that will allow some to claim both JobKeeper and JobSeeker once the changes come through.
In an article on The Conversation, Coates and Nolan say workers could claim up to $554 per fortnight on top of JobKeeper which would keep their income closer to the original JobKeeper rate.
We are not through this pandemic yet. With record numbers of new daily infections recorded recently, the precariousness of some casual workers may only become more stark. With the federal government’s IR reform process already underway, it will be interesting to see what gets proposed in the coming months and years to offer more certainty for both workers and organisations.