Pandemic leave is just Victoria’s hardship payments rebadged, Labor says

Labor has accused the federal government of merely changing funding arrangements for existing Victorian government hardship payments rather than creating a new “genuine” right to paid pandemic leave.

Scott Morrison announced the $1,500 pandemic leave disaster payments on Monday as a means to “supplement” the existing Victorian scheme, but unions warned that the flat rate of $1,500 a fortnight will mean many workers who ordinarily earn more will still pay a financial penalty for self-isolation.

Employer groups are split on the commonwealth’s plan, with some calling for it to be extended to other states and paid through employers while others praised the government for administering it.

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Under the policy, workers required to self-isolate by health authorities can access the $1,500 payment if they have no sick leave – with costs to be shared by the commonwealth and Victoria, depending on whether the claimant is a temporary visa holder or Australian citizen or resident.

The existing Victorian scheme similarly provides for $1,500 payments for those without sick leave but has been marred by poor take-up, which unions have blamed on “inadequate” mechanisms to administer payments.

Victorians can apply for the commonwealth payment by phone from Wednesday and, unlike the Victorian scheme, it can be claimed multiple times. It is not now available in other states and territories because they have not entered a “state of disaster”.

Labor’s industrial relations spokesman, Tony Burke, said the policy amounted to “new funding arrangements for a Victorian government payment that already existed in a state already experiencing a second wave of infections”.

“A Victorian disaster payment will not stop a worker in New South Wales or Queensland turning up to work sick,” he said. “Unless we get a universal scheme we will have more community transmission, leading to more outbreaks and economy-smashing lockdowns.”

Dominique Lamb, the chief executive of the National Retail Association, backed the view the payment should be available outside Victoria. “Obviously with what’s happening in NSW, there’s no doubt other states are impacted when it comes to the pandemic,” she told Guardian Australia.

“Where there are locations in other states that are impacted – certainly we would like to see the payment expanded.”

Lamb said the “easiest way” to provide payments would be “directly through the employer” but she did not back union calls to pay workers at their usual rate, arguing that the government could not afford a “limitless” cost.

The Business Council of Australia chief executive, Jennifer Westacott, told Radio National the council’s preference would have been for payments to be made through employers in the same way jobkeeper wage subsidies are administered.

She said the announcement “makes a huge difference in removing the disincentive to stay at home” and “takes the burden off small business”.

Westacott suggested that national cabinet could consider whether to extend the payment to states such as NSW.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive, James Pearson, welcomed the fact that the government will pay workers directly, arguing “even with reimbursement, small businesses couldn’t afford to keep writing cheques”.

The Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia chief executive, Peter Strong, said workers in other states that are “not in a disaster” should not be eligible and rejected suggestions that the payment should be based on workers’ self-assessment.

“You don’t want people saying ‘I think I’ve got it’ when they don’t but you also don’t want people going to work if they have got it,” he said.

Strong argued that “young people” and “malingering public servants” could take advantage of the scheme if it were “open slather”.

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The Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Sally McManus, told ABC’s 7.30 the payment of $1,500 a fortnight “is about the minimum wage” and the average wage is more than double that.

“So for some workers, you’re basically saying to them, if you’ve got to isolate, that you’re going to have a significant pay cut,” she said. “We’ve just got to take away that disincentive. It’s just a hole in our defences.”

Labor has backed union concerns about the rate of payment. Anthony Albanese told reporters in Canberra that pandemic leave should be paid at a “reasonable rate” and the government should “err on the side of generosity because we do not want there to be any incentive for people to go to work”.

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