The Morrison government will waive the waiting period for the taxpayer-funded sickness allowance, after it dismissed calls from unions to force employers to give casual workers paid sick leave to self-isolate and prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Innes Willox, the chief executive of Australian Industry Group, has accused unions of “opportunistically” pursuing permanent changes, while the finance minister Mathias Cormann said the government would not “fundamentally change the industrial relations system”.
But as the government unveiled its stimulus package worth $17bn on Thursday, the prime minister Scott Morrison announced the waiting period for existing sickness benefits will be waived.
Casual employees and independent contractors, including gig economy workers, do not receive paid sick leave in Australia but may qualify for the sickness allowance, a means-tested payment that provides up to $560 for singles without children and $1,010 for couples out of work due to illness.
Morrison told reporters in Canberra the payment is “going through a change of name” – as it will be consolidated into the jobseeker payment – “but it’s the same payment”.
“It is a Newstart-level payment and people who are casual employees that wouldn’t be able to go to work or because they have to self-isolate or, indeed, have the virus, they would be able to access that payment,” he said.
“The normal assets test rules apply to those as they do to all these payments, but the waiting period will be waived to enable them to access that payment and that will provide that support.”
The Australian Council of Trade Unions has called for 3.3 million casual workers to receive paid sick leave from their employers, after similar moves in the UK to allow workers to self-isolate.
Morrison noted the changes in the UK, but suggested Australia did not need to follow its lead because “we already have a system that deals with that”.
The industrial relations minister, Christian Porter, met employers and unions on Tuesday and noted that casuals receive a loading of between 15% and 25% above the normal base rate of pay, in part to compensate for losing other benefits such as paid sick leave.
On Wednesday the Greens federal party room decided that when parliament returns it will introduce a private member’s bill to provide 14 days of paid sick leave for all workers, including casual employees, if they are unable to work due to Covid-19.
That would include workers diagnosed with the virus, those required to self-isolate, people who are unable to attend their workplace as it has been shut down due to Covid-19, and those caring for another person.
Anthony Albanese has said casual workers “need support” because they “shouldn’t have to choose between doing the right thing by their coworkers and being able to afford to live and eat”.
Labor’s shadow government services minister, Bill Shorten, told Sky News on Thursday that casual workers were “in a terrible bind where they either self-isolate and starve or go to work sick”.
Shorten said although “it’s a cooperative effort” the government “should be helping business, particularly small business, with this cost”.
“If you’re on $20 an hour, and only get 25 hours a week – all of a sudden you’re in the hole for $1,000 and you’re got to pay your rent,” he said. “We want to make sure casuals and part-timers don’t get forgotten.”
Asked about union calls for paid sick leave, Cormann told Radio National: “Some unions are seeking to fundamentally change the industrial system in the context of this and that’s not something we’ll be able to do.”
“All Australians, ultimately, are able to access relevant support through our welfare system as and when appropriate.”
The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, said the government “must not leave Australian workers to fend for themselves during this crisis”.
“Workers should be able to follow government advice to self-isolate without losing their income or their job,” he said.
Willox said the ACTU’s proposal “for ongoing changes to workplace laws to provide an entitlement to special leave should be quickly ruled out”.
“What is needed at this time is for the community to pull together, not for unions to use the coronavirus outbreak to opportunistically pursue ongoing changes to workplace laws,” he said.
“Employees who need to be absent from work due to the effects of the coronavirus outbreak already have a range of entitlements and protections to ensure that they are not treated unfairly.
“These include various forms of paid and unpaid leave, as well as unfair dismissal laws and the general protections in the Fair Work Act.”