COVID-19 – WFH, Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment, and Employer Concerns

Jul 29th, 2022

After more than two years, COVID-19 continues to make headlines across Australia. The winter Omicron wave has hit Australia hard, just as experts predicted it would as a result of the highly-contagious BA.4 and BA.5 strains dominating the COVID case numbers.  

It may be easy to dismiss COVID-19 as the new normal, but it is evident that new variants will keep emerging, likely more contagious and potentially more deadly. As such, businesses need to ensure they keep up with the latest health advice and all things COVID-19.

Here are some of the latest updates:

WFH Strongly Recommended
Experts have warned that COVID-19 cases in Australia are expected to rise in the coming months. The Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly recently urged employers to allow employees to work from home where possible. He also added that employees should strongly consider wearing masks in the workplace.

Return of the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment
The Federal Government restored the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment as of 20 July. The payment is available to certain employees who do not have access to sick leave and have been unable to work due to COVID-19 isolation requirements.

While the payment was first introduced by the Morrison government and ended on 30 June this year, the Albanese government has since chosen to reintroduce the payment amidst pressure from state and territory leaders and medical professionals concerned about the increasing COVID case numbers.

In order to receive these payments, an employee must meet certain eligibility criteria. They can determine their eligibility and apply for the payment through Services Australia (Centrelink).

Unpaid Pandemic Leave Reinstated in Some Awards
A recent decision by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) allows employees in certain awards to access unpaid pandemic leave of up to 2 weeks, if they cannot work because:

  • they’re required to self-isolate by government or medical authorities, or on the advice of a medical practitioner, or
  • of measures taken by government or medical authorities in response to the pandemic (for example, an enforceable government direction restricting non-essential businesses).
This provision was previously included in most modern awards in response to the pandemic, but ended on 30 June 2022. The FWC has extended Unpaid Pandemic Leave to be available from 15 July 2022 to 31 December 2022 for employees under the following awards:
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Services Award
  • Aged Care Award
  • Ambulance and Patient Transport Award
  • Health Professionals and Support Services Award
  • Social, Community, Home Care and Disability Services Award
  • Supported Employment Services Award.
Key Takeaways
Employers should be reminded of their obligations to workers and prepare their workplaces to battle the inevitable surge of COVID cases predicted in the coming months. It would be a good time to ensure health and safety policies and procedures are up to date to avoid illness spreading through the work environment, and review contingency plans to minimise impacts of staff shortages. Workplaces should continue to maintain COVID-safe practices such as regular handwashing and social distancing. Staff should be urged to work from home where possible, and avoid attending the workplace if they are feeling unwell.

It is evident the COVID pandemic is far from over – employers and employees alike should be sure to heed warnings from health experts and prioritise health and safety for everyone in the workplace.  

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