NSW Government backflips on COVID Workers Comp

The IEU joined with numerous other unions at Parliament House on Tuesday 23 November, to protest the NSW Government’s proposed change to Workers Compensation laws that will make it much harder for employees who contract COVID to access workers comp.

The several-hundred-strong crowd included representatives from the NSW Teachers Federation; the Nurses and Midwives Association; the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association; the Public Service Association; the Transport Workers Union; the United Workers Union; the Rail, Tram and Bus Union; the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union; the Maritime Union of Australia; and the CFMEU NSW.

NSW Labor was also there in force, including Opposition Leader Chris Minns, Shadow Education Minister Prue Car, Shadow Industrial Relations Minister Sophie Cotsis, Shadow Transport Minister Jo Haylen, Shadow Ministre for Customer Service Yasmin Catley and the Vice-President of the Australian Labor Party, Mich-Elle Myers.

Since mid-2020, Section 19B of the Workers Compensation Act 1987 has meant that if teachers and support staff (as well as workers in other frontline services including health, aged care, transport, hospitality and retail) caught COVID-19 and needed to access workers comp, they were automatically assumed to have contracted the virus at work.

Staff in these fields either deal with countless people during the course of a working day or, like school staff, work in crowded environments where social distancing is difficult if not impossible.

But now the NSW Government wants to repeal this provision, meaning staff will have to prove they caught the virus at work to access workers compensation. The government is siding with business to prevent a small rise in insurance premiums.

Yet we know already that contact tracers struggle during intense outbreaks; for example, in schools, contact tracing has largely been delegated to school staff. Further, as QR code check-ins are set to be phased out, proving how a case was acquired will be almost impossible.

“It’s not easy going back to work teaching face-to-face with hundreds of unvaccinated children,” said IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Acting Secretary Carol Matthews, addressing the crowd. “We’ve got people who’ve been told they have to stay home because there’s been a case at work, but they have to take their long service leave. This is outrageous.

“So workers comp is part of the picture. It’s really important that it’s there because it’s so hard to prove where a case came from. We need at least some protection, and to provide some certainty for what are really unclear circumstances.

“There’s been terrible stories of the number of cases that would spread through an early learning centre from one infection – we’ve heard of 80 cases associated with one infection.”

Union leader after union leader pointed out that their members – from nurses and midwives to food and parcel delivery drivers, staff in supermarkets and food preparation, as well as cleaners and garbage collectors – were the ones who turned up to high-risk environments every day to keep NSW running during outbreaks and lockdown.

Labor Leader Chris Minns also addressed the protest, saying that while NSW Parliament “wasn’t required to sit for months and months because it was deemed too risky”, the government still expected essential workers to turn up so supermarkets were staffed and hospitals didn’t collapse.

“And the implied bargain was that if you’re unlucky enough to get COVID-19 through no fault of your own, simply by virtue of the fact that you turned up for work, we will have your back,” he said. “So it is hugely distressing to hear the government now say, ‘we actually are not all in this together and we don’t have your back’.

“It’s a straightforward bargain. It's our responsibility to stand up for the people who stood up for us during the COVID-19 pandemic. The frontline workers in the private sector, in the government sector, right across NSW did the right thing by us, and it’s our responsibility to do the right thing by them.”

The day after the protest, the amendment narrowly passed the Lower House, 46 votes to 45. All Labor members voted against it, as did the Greens, Independents and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers – a strong result in itself.

The Bill will now go to an Upper House Committee with a hearing due to be held in January 2022. The IEU will make a submission supporting school staff and opposing the change.

Monica Crouch