Covid-19: What members need to know

It is now apparent that the Covid-19 virus will continue to spread, that a vaccine is probably some time away and that many of our workplaces will probably be affected. Accordingly, members are entitled to know how their employer will treat foreseeable circumstances. 

Various workplaces have different conditions because some are covered only by the Awards while others have Agreements - and some Agreements are better than others. As a result, there is no single answer to the common questions – it depends on where you work. The Union has written to the Catholic employers, to the Associations of Independent Schools in Victoria and Tasmania, and to ELICOS Colleges to establish their views.

While we wait on their responses, here is the Union’s interim advice for members:

Minimising Risk
Each employer has a legal obligation to provide a healthy and safe workplace. They cannot expose staff or students to unreasonable risk. Some workplaces (especially those with students who are more likely to have been exposed to the virus) must be taking active steps to ensure the safety of their other students and their staff.  Members in these workplaces (which include some schools and English language colleges, etc) should, either themselves or through the Union directly ask the employer:
1.    whether a risk assessment has been done at the workplace because of the heightened risk of direct or indirect contact with persons who have been exposed to the Covid-19 virus.
2.    what steps are being taken to ensure compliance with the DoH advices, and otherwise minimise and control risk at each workplace. That is, what role is the employer playing in ensuring that self-exclusions and the like are being implemented.
3.    what advice has been given to the school communities to minimise contact and risk? That is, what role is the employer playing in reinforcing infection control with staff, students, parents and others connected with the school/college.
4.    what steps they are taking in relation to minimising potential exposure on overseas exchanges, trips and excursions?

What if you Cannot Work?
Each workplace is either covered by the Awards or one or more Enterprise Agreements. Because these are all different, it is very difficult to give broad advice about what your rights would be if you are required to undergo quarantine, if the school/college needs to close, or if you get sick.

If you need specific advice about your situation, contact the Union.

We also expect that respectable employers will provide a little more than the legal minima, so we have asked them to tell us how they will deal with these situations.  Some other employers may take the callous approach and argue small technicalities to avoid having to pay staff who are not at work. We hope to have responses to the questions we have asked very soon.

In the meantime:

1.    What will happen in the event that there is a requirement for you to undergo a period of quarantine? 
If you are likely to have come into contact with the virus at work, then your absence should be treated as paid leave. Some employers will want to treat this as “sick leave” regardless of whether you are actually sick. Some will accept that it is a direction by the employer for you to stay away from the workplace, and therefore treated as normal working time (because you are doing as the employer directs). Casual employees generally will not get paid, but some “regular” casuals (such as those with a roster) may be entitled to pay.

2.    What will happen in the event that there is a requirement for a school to close or in the event of other interruptions? 
Staff at most schools and colleges should be provided with alternative duties and work arrangements. Preparation still needs to be done and some workplaces will make arrangements for students to participate on-line. If the school/college stops operating entirely and there is nothing for you to do the employer should pay this as special leave. Some (less scrupulous) employers may argue that they are entitled to stand employees down without pay. We will have to deal with those situations if and when they arise.

3.    What will happen in the event that a staff member becomes infected? 
Employees, other than genuine casuals are entitled to paid leave. Whether this comes out of your sick leave entitlement could be complicated. Some employers will treat this as special leave which is additional to your personal (sick) leave. In workplaces where we have union-negotiated Enterprise Agreements, we have often included “contagious/infectious diseases leave”. In those workplaces, if you contracted the disease at work you will be entitled to this leave which is paid and does not come out of your sick leave. This leave is available to everyone in Catholic Education in both Victoria and Tasmania. We have also got this into many Agreements in independent schools but sometimes the Agreement only applies to one group or another (teachers or support staff) and sometimes the Agreement lists the diseases it covers, and the agreement was written before anyone knew about Covid-19.  Again, ask your employer and we will need to sort out any issues if and when they arise.

Other Notices

The Point - 06 March 2020

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