Unions and employers respond to COVID-19

Let’s put workers at the centre of the conversation

The World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic on Wednesday 11 March, as the coronavirus rapidly spreads across the world. It is increasingly apparent that efforts to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus have been so far limited, and that a vaccine remains some time away. With school closures and other social distancing measures likely to escalate in the coming weeks and months, members have rightly started to question how this public health crisis will be managed in their own workplaces.

Because different workplaces have different conditions, there is unfortunately no single, definite answer to how employers will respond and how members will be impacted. The union has contacted and been in discussion with major NSW and ACT school employer organisations concerning entitlements of employees who are unable to attend work as a result of the coronavirus. IEUA Secretary Mark Northam has called for a fair and compassionate response from employers, saying “let’s put workers at the centre of the conversation.”

Paid leave

Employees may be impacted by workplace responses to COVID-19 in a number of ways. The union’s view is that employees should of course be entitled to personal/carer’s leave if they are themselves unwell or caring for a sick family member. However, in other cases where the employee is not unwell but is absent for self-isolation reasons, we are calling on employers to ensure the employee is not disadvantaged by providing the employee the option of working from home, where possible, or be provided with two weeks ex gratia leave. This is because it is in the public interest to delay the spread of the virus, and staff who may be unwell who remain away from work in the interest of students and staff should not be penalised.

The union is calling for the provision of paid leave for a casual employee who is forced to decline previously scheduled work or that the casual employee be provided with paid leave on a case by case basis, reflecting the usual number of days worked per week.

Already, the union has managed to secure for employees in Catholic systemic schools 10 days ex gratia paid leave for employees required to self-isolate due to a workplace shutdown, in circumstances where it is not possible to continue work from home.

At time of writing, similar commitments have begun being made by other employers, including EREA schools, Seventh Day Adventist schools, Christian schools, SDN, and KU Children’s Services.

So far, the union has secured a commitment from Wollongong and Bathurst Dioceses to extend policy entitlements to both casual and salaried employees, including the provision of up to 10 days ex gratia paid leave to casual staff unable to attend scheduled work.

This response has been well received by the union. “This considered and compassionate policy is a great response to a complex situation,” said Northam.

The union is calling on all employers to follow the lead of the Wollongong Diocese, who lead the way in this generous approach, and publicly support their workers and extend employee entitlements to include casual staff.

PD available online

For members required to self-isolate, the union has hours of on demand online PD available as part of your membership. You can find the full range of programs at www.theieuzone.org.au .

The union expects that employers will generally be sympathetic to our approach on behalf of members and will work collaboratively with employees and the union in the interest of public health and safety. Any employee requiring specific advice about their situation, or with any concerns, should immediately contact the union.

The NSW Department of Education recommends that schools cancel:
  • school assemblies
  • excursions
  • international and domestic travel plans
  • some events, such as sports matches and performances
  • conferences and face to face PD engagements, and
  • stagger school lunchtimes in large schools.

Given all the circumstances, the IEU believes this to be best practice and should be adopted by all schools.

Mark Northam

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