Paid Pandemic Leave Rejected by the Fair Work Commission

The Fair Work Commission has rejected a claim for paid pandemic leave for health industry workers including pharmacy workers. The claim from PPA and a number of other health industry unions (such as the Health Services Union, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation, the United Workers Union and Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association) was coordinated by the ACTU. The ACTU and unions were able to mount impressive evidence on the need for paid pandemic leave, particularly for health workers who are required to isolate because they come in contact with COVID-19 in the workplace but the Fair Work Commission found that there was no need for such a provision at this time.

They did however indicate that they would consider relisting the claim at a later date if there was evidence of extensive outbreaks in health facilities. The evidence provided by many employees (including pharmacists, nurses, doctors, paramedics etc) clearly showed that many would not be paid if they were required to isolate upon coming in contact with COVID-19 at work. The evidence provided by our expert witness Professor MacIntyre who is a public health physician, epidemiologist and academic, and holds the positions of Head of the Biosecurity Research Program and Professor of Global Biosecurity at the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of New South Wales was particularly impressive on the main features of the spread of COVID-19; how health workers have been overrepresented in cases of people who have contracted COVID-19 in Australia and overseas; and on measures that might be taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19 amongst health industry workers. (If you would like to read Professor McIntyre’s evidence please go to our PA Pharmacies Communities page where you can read it at your leisure.)

The ACTU and unions argued that there was a need to provide paid pandemic leave to health industry workers because of the increased risk they face. We also argued that if the claim was granted, workers will be less likely to violate self-isolation requirements due to economic hardship and comply with public health best practice, and in that way the granting of the claim will contribute to the resilience of the health and care workforce. Unfortunately the Fair Work Commission preferred the evidence of employers such as The Guild who argued that an increase in financial obligations on health industry employers would have a significant impact on their ability to continue to operate; that the government should pay for employees who are required to isolate; and with the appearance that the nation was getting on top of the spread of COVID-19 there was a reduced need to consider such a provision in awards (note the hearing was conducted prior to the current outbreak in Victoria).

The Guild in particular argued that pharmacists, technicians and pharmacy assistants were no more at risk of coming in contact with COVID-19 than other retail workers. We of course do not agree and Professor MacIntyre gave evidence 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. With the increase in COVID-19 cases in Victoria the Fair Work Commission may consider relisting our application. But we can’t rely on that. The ACTU, PPA and other health industry unions are currently calling on the federal government to pay for health industry workers who are required to isolate. We will keep PPA members informed of progress

Jacki Baulch
Principal Industrial Officer, PPA
14 July 2020