Australia Today

The Government Reckons Everyone With COVID Should Just ‘Work From Home’

For millions of casual frontline workers who can’t work from home, reinstating disaster payments is the very least the government can do, unions say.
Anthony Albanese on the tarmac in Fiji
Photo by Joe Armao / Getty Images

The federal government is facing renewed pressure from all flanks, after prime minister Anthony Albanese argued COVID disaster payments are no longer necessary because employers are paying sick leave and workers can just work from home while infected. 

Albanese made the comments at a press conference in Fiji on Friday, where he has spent the last few days attending the Pacific Islands Forum, after a wave of outrage has united state leaders, unions, workers, the crossbench, the opposition, and even members of his own party, to call on the government to reinstate the $750 weekly pandemic leave payment.


Speaking to reporters in Fiji, Albanese said there are “a range of companies” who are “good employers” and pay their staff the sick leave they’re owed. Those “good employers”, he said, are also allowing workers to “work from home whilst they have COVID”.

“What’s happening over a period of time is that the economy and the way that we work is adjusting to the circumstances which are there. These payments were put in place by the former government with an end date,” Albanese said. 

“That was a decision that they made at that time.”

The comments sparked outrage among frontline workers and union bosses, who pointed to the fact that not all workers are entitled to sick leave, while millions of them aren’t afforded the luxury to work from home.

Josh Cullinan, secretary of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, told VICE only a tiny fraction of his members are able to work from home. In the very few circumstances where they can, he said, bosses are forcing workers back into stores and offices. 

“Huge numbers of workers do not have sick leave—either because they are engaged on a casual basis, or because their leave has been used up over the past two years with COVID,” Cullinan said. 

“Of course, new workers in new jobs haven’t accrued leave. The comments of the prime minister do not apply to our sectors, where 1.5 million Australians work.”

Michael Kaine, national secretary at the Transport Workers’ Union, shared the sentiment. He said here may well come a time when scaling down pandemic support measures is possible without putting workers at risk, “but we haven’t reached it yet”.


“In fact, the current approach may end up costing us more in the long run, as workers are sent to their sickbeds without support and national supply chains grind to a halt,” Kaine told VICE.

“The federal government should reintroduce paid pandemic leave and move to implement an independent body to create enforceable rights and protections for all workers, regardless of how they’re labelled,” he said.

The pandemic sick leave payment was first introduced to workers in Victoria by the former Morrison government, back in August 2020, before it was later rolled out to workers around the country nearly one year later.

Under the federal COVID-19 Disaster Payment scheme, those who stood to lose more than 20 hours of work a week would be eligible for weekly payments of $750, while those out of pocket for between eight and 20 hours of work were eligible for payments of $450 a week.

The payment expired on June 30, and unions, joined by state leaders, have put pressure on the government to reinstate the support measure, which the government says it can’t afford as it tries to whittle down more than $1 trillion in budget debt. 

United Workers Union national secretary, Tim Kennedy, told VICE the payment was fought hard for by the union movement in 2020, and backed by the Labor party while it was in opposition. Now the party is in government, Kennedy warned Albanese that failing to reinstate the payment will only do more economic and social damage. 


“It will also hurt the very people who have shouldered the greatest load over the last two years—the low paid essential workers who were asked to turn up every day risking their health,” Kennedy said. 

“The leave should be extended until we have emerged from the worst of the terrible winter wave at a bare minimum.”

The calls have the support of New South Wales premier Dominic Perrottet, who said he would “absolutely” lobby the Albanese government to reinstate the payment when state and territory leaders meet for a snap meeting of national cabinet on Monday.

He said it would be “unfair” to leave people in insecure work vulnerable as Australia faces an onslaught of Omicron cases through the height of winter, and signalled that he’d be open to co-funding the payment, as the federal government faces a mountain of budgetary pressures. 

“I’m very open to doing everything we can at the state level to support our people through this next phase of the pandemic,” Perrottet said.

“I think it is unfair that [that when] the state imposes public health orders on people to restrict their liberty and their capacity to work for the government to not provide financial support.”

Just yesterday, Perrottet announced that his government—which is currently in an election year—would pick up the slack left by the federal government on subsidised access to rapid antigen tests, which were until recently free to seniors and concession card holders around the country. 


The government announced that the support measure would come to an end later this month, and the prime minister encouraged those eligible to “stock up” on free rapid tests while they still could. 

Cullinan told VICE that the payments were a health measure above all else, and that dispensing with crucial support measures like these, in quick succession, sends a bad message to workers around the country: “We can only surmise that governments believe workers should get very sick or die.”

“We even have large employers lobbying to stop masks being mandated despite Chief Health Officer recommendations. Employers like Woolworths have publicly advocated that there is an expectation all workers will contract COVID,” Cullinan said. 

“Without COVID disaster payments more workers will work when sick. More workers will get sick. More members of our community will die.”

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