Some workers are being left in a precarious position ahead of the winter cold and flu season after depleting their sick leave isolating with Covid-19.
Workers left in precarious position after using sick leave isolating with Covid-19Play Video02:08
1News is aware of issues across multiple sectors but Countdown staff are the latest to speak out, launching a petition this week. (Source: 1News)
1News is aware of leave issues in retail, support work and early childhood education but Countdown workers are the latest to speak out, launching a petition this week.
In February, Countdown stopped its Covid leave entitlement which allowed staff to isolate when sick without using sick leave.
1News spoke to two workers who were infected with the virus this month and didn’t want to be identified.
They are frustrated and unhappy their sick leave has been drained after working through a range of challenges during the pandemic as essential staff.
“Such a critical time, dangerous time we are working and [the] company taking our sick leave.
“If I am sick, what am I going to do? I force myself to go to work because see, I have a house to pay, the mortgage, I have bills to pay,” one worker said.
“It’s terrible because it wasn’t that long ago that they were saying, you know, ‘Be kind, be kind to the essential workers and the staff’, and now they’ve gone and done this,” another affected worker said.
In a statement, Countdown managing director Spencer Sonn said the business has supported nearly half of its workforce of 20,000 with discretionary leave while they were sick with Covid-19, isolating or looking after a dependant that was infected since March 2020.
The change to workers having to use sick leave when ill with Covid-19 was made because “Omicron is generally less severe than previous Covid variants”, the isolation period has reduced, staff are vaccinated and “recovery is usually quicker and can be managed within the normal sick leave entitlements of 10 days per year”, Sonn said in the statement.
He said if a staff member uses up their sick leave due to Covid-19 and needs more time off to recover, the business can extend this with discretionary leave.
“Team members who are household contacts or caring for loved ones recovering from Covid can still immediately access discretionary leave,” he said in the statement.
Corporate Affairs, Safety and Sustainability director Kiri Hannifin said if a worker has depleted their sick leave after isolating with Covid-19 and gets sick at another time, discretionary leave would be given.
Discretionary leave is when an employer grants an employee special leave at their discretion with or without pay on terms and conditions it approves.
The Government’s Leave Support Scheme is available to employers to help cover pay for isolating staff.
Countdown’s Spencer Sonn said in a statement the business decided at the start of the pandemic not to access Government Covid financial support “in recognition that smaller, independent businesses who would be far more impacted than our business, should be the ones benefiting from these subsidies”.
Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood said he expects with this support in place, as well as the increased minimum of 10 days sick leave each year, employees, employers and unions will reach agreements so staff can stay at home when necessary due to illness.
“It depends on the individual circumstances but what I would say is that we do expect employers to use those tools that we have provided and to work in good faith with their employees and unions,” he said.
He said most employers and employees have come to reasonable agreements during the pandemic over the last two years.
“Please keep up the dialogue and as I say, the Government is here providing the support to make this as easy as possible for everyone, I encourage employers to take it up.”
Wood said he would be making inquiries over the leave issues raised by 1News.
First Union retail, finance and commerce organiser Ragda Hassan said Countdown staff that have used all their sick leave while ill with Covid-19 now have no guaranteed paid sick leave for the future.
“We want Countdown to give members their Covid leave back.
“It was only recently they took it away from their members and they’ve done it at the height of the pandemic despite saying they want to support and look after them during these difficult times… that was not the ethical thing for them to do,” Hassan said.
She said it is unfair that Countdown is not applying for the Government scheme but also doesn’t want to pay separate Covid leave to workers.
“Workers are pretty much bearing the cost,” Hassan said.
Businesses are dealing with Covid absences in different ways.
In a statement from The Warehouse, a spokesperson said workers isolating with Omicron will use sick leave, but if they have none left the business will apply for the Government support scheme.
“The government subsidy does not cover 100 per cent of employee wages, so any difference will be topped up by The Warehouse Group to ensure the team member receives 100 per cent of their normal pay,” the spokesperson said.
If staff need to use sick leave for other illnesses and have none left after isolating with Covid-19, the business will communicate with them individually about other leave options such as discretionary leave, he said.
Foodstuffs North Island and Foodstuffs South Island cooperatives have told individual store owners of Pak’nSave, New World and Four Square to give staff special leave for Covid-related absences so they don’t use their sick leave, a spokesperson said.
Stores have been advised they can apply for the Government’s support scheme if they’re eligible and topping up worker pay will be covered by Foodstuffs.
Employment lawyer Barbara Buckett said employers must act fairly and reasonably.
“Your employment contract will start that, it will say how much leave you’ve got and what you haven’t got leave and that’s strictly black and white around that,” she said.
“The tricky part is if there’s no leave, what then is the obligation on the employer to have some sort of consideration for the circumstances and make good the deficit? … There probably is no obligation as such but you certainly must consult, you certainly must look at what options are available to try and get around this,” Buckett said.
She said you can’t force a worker to use annual leave as agreement must be reached for this.
The employment lawyer said it’s a challenging area as the pandemic keeps evolving and presenting new situations and the legal system moves too slowly to have the answers.
“We’re all going blind on this but we’re coming back … to employment law [which] has these obligations on the employer to act fairly and reasonably in the circumstances and to act in good faith.”
Buckett said some employers are not wanting to access Government support and she suggested this may be because of declaration requirements in the application process.
“That raises the issue if it’s available, ought an employer as a fair and reasonable employer access that?”