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Government gives no ground on paid pandemic leave

“Well, we’ve put in place JobKeeper, we’ve provided JobSeeker. These are the supports that the government has provided, which are at record levels,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra. “This country has never seen a level of income support provided by a federal government like they’re seeing now.”

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Coronavirus clusters have sprung up among teachers, security guards and healthcare staff, sparking concerns that people with mild symptoms that could indicate coronavirus have kept working.

Some large companies, including Woolworths, are paying staff if they have to stay home due to coronavirus while the Victorian government provides $1500 one-off payments to people unable to work due to self-isolation rules.

Innes Willox, chief executive of employer lobby Ai Group, told ABC radio requiring all employers, including struggling small businesses, to pay pandemic leave would be “economically crippling” when there were other measures that let workers take time off.

Data from Victoria seen by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald shows that state’s $1500 grants program had cost only about $150,000 so far, with 102 people receiving the payments. Another 220 were waiting to have their applications assessed.

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said giving workers paid pandemic leave at the same rate as their normal pay would stop people choosing between their income and the community’s health.

“Paid pandemic leave costs are a drop in the ocean compared to ongoing lockdowns,” Ms McManus said. The unions would like governments to bear the cost.

JobKeeper covers employees from businesses that have lost at least 30 per cent of their turnover, even if they are not actively working, but casuals who have worked for less than 12 months in the same job are not eligible. JobSeeker, a $1100-a-fortnight welfare payment, can cover people who have lost hours at work or need to isolate because of the coronavirus.

Health experts including the Grattan Institute’s Stephen Duckett, a former secretary of the federal Department of Health, have argued for paid pandemic leave to encourage workers with coronavirus symptoms to stay home.

Liberal MP Kevin Andrews, who represents the outer-Melbourne electorate of Menzies, said he understood the rationale for paid pandemic leave but believed existing payments were sufficient.

“The problem here is that there is already a huge cost on the economy and business,” said Mr Andrews, who was minister for workplace relations in the Howard government.

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