The ACT Government has changed its employee agreements so frontline healthcare workers who contract COVID-19 will be able to access specific COVID-19 leave rather than using other leave.
Since Thursday (20 January), the new COVID-19 leave policy gives an additional one week (seven consecutive days) of entitlements to employees who test positive to COVID-19.
The Opposition spokesperson for health Giulia Jones called for the policy to be instated yesterday morning after hearing concerns from frontline staff and unions about the policy which forced healthcare workers to use up their usual sick leave after contracting COVID-19 before being able to access specific COVID-19 leave.
“It isn’t good enough for workers to be without COVID leave when they are working with COVID-19 patients every day when this leave was created for this very purpose,” Mrs Jones said.
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Foundation has also raised concerns about the policy.
ACT branch secretary Matthew Daniel said he welcomed the change in policy from the government and their “recognition and acknowledgment of the situation”.
“We will see how that plays out, though. It’s one thing to have something in policy, but we will be keeping an eye on how this translates into practice,” Mr Daniel said.
“The jury will be out to see how Canberra Hospital and Calvary Public Hospital Bruce implement it.”
While Mr Daniel expects the policy to be implemented correctly, he noted these kinds of changes can often lead to grey areas in which healthcare staff – nurses and midwives in particular – come off worse.
He’s also concerned by the policy’s gendered aspects, with around 80 per cent of the nurses and midwives’ workforce being female.
“It’s not only that people can fall sick themselves, but they are often also looking after children, the elderly and their relatives or partners as well,” he said.
“So they do have these caring responsibilities and we know the burden of care falls to women in most cases,” Mr Daniel said.
The ACT Government said the decision to make this change occurred earlier this week and has come about as a result of close consultation with the unions.
Mr Daniel’s responded: “if they knew about it, why didn’t they act sooner?”
Minister for Industrial Relations and Workplace Safety Mick Gentleman said the government acknowledges the “efforts of frontline workers and the strain and health risks that COVID-19 places on that workforce”.
According to Mr Gentleman, the government first changed its public sector workers’ compensation coverage for frontline workers (including health workers) in August 2020 so that a health worker who contracts COVID-19 is assumed to have done so because of their work.
“Workers’ compensation leave, which does not reduce personal leave balances, would then be available,” Mr Gentleman said.
He said COVID leave has also been available for some time to cover circumstances where workers’ compensation or personal leave may not be available, such as when a person is required to quarantine because they are a close contact but do not have COVID-19.