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PM calls urgent national cabinet amid COVID payment pressure

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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has convened an urgent national cabinet meeting on Monday amid growing pressure from state premiers to change course on a controversial cut to pandemic payments for casual workers.

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Albanese has recently softened his rhetoric on the payments, made to workers who do not have sick leave entitlements, as state premiers – including Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk and Tasmania’s Jeremy Rockliff – joined a growing chorus calling for them to be reinstated.

It comes amid revelation hundreds of thousands of Australian workers are forfeiting their incomes in near-record numbers as the rising coronavirus wave and the flu season keep them from work.

Some 776,000 Australians worked fewer hours in June due to illness, an ABS workforce report released on Wednesday found. That nearly equalled May’s historic high and represented more than twice the number affected two years ago.

Workers’ use of sick leave in June was 35 per cent above the long-term national seasonal trend, according to data provided to The New Daily by MYOB, a software company.

Albanese’s refusal to extend pandemic leave disaster payments for workers already denied sick leave entitlements has drawn criticism from unions and doctors.

The $750 payment has gone to casuals unable to work due to COVID-19 isolation. But it ended at the beginning of this month.

Unions have also pressured the Labor government to reinstate the payments, which they say was a pandemic safety net for Australian workers.

“The recovery from the pandemic is not being shared across the economy,” said Liam O’Brien, the assistant secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

“We are seeing a record level of people missing work due to illness, and all indications are that it is getting worse.

“This is not the time to be pulling supports like the disaster leave payment and free RATs that allow workers to keep themselves and their communities safe.”

Palaszczuk said leaders need to discuss how people taking time off work while sick with new virus sub-variants could be supported.

Existing financial supports from state governments may not be enough for some people, she said.

“We are seeing some people being hit harder, so that means that they are off work for longer than the seven days (of isolation),” Palaszczuk told the Seven Network on Thursday.

Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockcliff and NSW Opposition Leader Chris Minns have called for an extension to pandemic leave payments.

Federal Labor MP Mike Freelander broke ranks on Thursday, urging the prime minister to extend the support measures.

“Anything we can do to slow the spread of the virus is very important,” Dr Freelander told the Australian newspaper.

“I’d like Anthony Albanese, when he gets back from the Pacific Island conference, to reconsider.”

But Health Minister Mark Butler said while he respected Dr Freelander’s expertise, the government had to make tough choices.

“It’s a tough decision which will impact the community but, frankly, whenever you make a decision like this there will be an impact on the community,” he told ABC’s 7.30.

“But equally there has to be an end to these very large emergency payments that are putting pressure on the sustainability of our budget.”

The Australian Medical Association said scrapping the payments would undermine pandemic management plans as sick people who felt forced to continue working potentially caused new infections.

Aged Care Minister Anika Wells said on Thursday “all options” were being considered.

Notwithstanding, Wells said the government had been advised that money would be better spent on antiviral medication and vaccinations.

About 2.4 million Australians are employed on casual contracts and lack entitlements such as sick leave.

But when the figure is expanded to include self-employed Australians, some 37 per cent of Australian workers now have no statutory sick leave entitlements and another 12 per cent only part-time entitlements, an Australia Institute study found.

As schools prepare to begin the next term coping with a projected massive spike in absent students, workers especially women are being forced out of the workplace as illness causes a sudden childcare shortage.

 – With AAP

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