Nurses working in the New South Wales public health system anonymously reported to the ABC on January 7 that they were under pressure not to take sick days, as COVID-19 continues to stretch the healthcare system.
They reported not being able to call in sick because there was no one to replace them, while others reported receiving reprimands for “excessive” sick leave.
Responding to the shortages of healthcare workers, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard announced an exemption to Public Health Orders to allow these workers in critical roles who are COVID-19 positive, but asymptomatic, to be ordered back to work.
It appears that the NSW Nurses & Midwives’ Association has conceded. But the union drew a line at symptomatic nurses being directed to return to work, advising asymptomatic COVID-19 positive nurses who develop symptoms to stop working and contact the union if their employer directs them to continue working.
Victoria is yet to follow suit and the Australian Nurses and Midwives Federation (ANMF) Victorian branch has advised its members that if they test positive to COVID-19 or are unwell, they should not work.
The Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association (VAHPA) opposes COVID-19 positive healthcare workers being directed back to work, stating on January 11 that the risks posed to individual workers, their colleagues and patients are not acceptable.
The pressure being placed on workers is not just confined to the health sector. There are a growing number of worker shortages, including in retail, hospitality, transport and logistics.
The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has warned the government about the looming shortage of wharfies to unload goods. MUA National Deputy Secretary Paul Garrett told 2GB Radio on January 5 that workers needed access to rapid antigen tests as soon as possible to avoid supply shortages. The consequences of not doing so, he said, would mean the supply chains stop: 99% of freight comes into the country via shipping corridors.
Garrett said MUA members working 12-hour shifts will not spend eight hours between shifts lining up for a PCR test.
The Victorian Labor government said on January 10 workers in the manufacturing, distribution or packaging of food and beverages, including retail and supermarket workers, may be exempt from close contact isolation requirements so they can attend work.
The NSW Coalition government has announced isolation exemptions for critical workers in the food, logistics and manufacturing sectors who become close contacts.
These measures undermine workers’ entitlements to sick leave. It’s a slippery slope from “you need to return to work if you are asymptomatic” to “you need to return to work with mild symptoms”, as abattoir workers in South Australia have found out.
Under the Delta strain, it was “If you have symptoms or you’re a close contact stay home”. Under Omicron, it’s “Even if you have tested positive, we need you back at work”.
Workers have to draw a line: if someone tests positive or has symptoms, they are entitled to sick leave and should not be directed back to work.
The Transport Workers Union (TWU) said scrapping isolation requirements is “beyond reckless”. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) said sending asymptomatic COVID-19 positive workers back into the workplace will increase the risk of the virus spreading.
Teachers are concerned that it may, in some settings, be premature to send students back to the classroom. No primary school student will be fully vaccinated before the year starts.
Federal President of the Australian Education Union (AEU) Correna Haythorpe said the government had not consulted the union. It wants classrooms to be better ventilated, better physical distancing in classes and is wondering how staff shortages and the testing strategies will be managed.
As the former Human Rights Commissioner Chris Sidoti pointed out, the vaccination of 2.2 million children, aged between 5 and 11, is important before they return to school because it will ensure the health and safety of both the other students and their teachers.
The ACTU is calling on the federal government to meet with unions covering essential frontline workers. It wants: rapid antigen tests to be free and accessible to all; paid pandemic leave for all close contacts, including workplace close contacts; minimum PPE requirements to be upgraded to N95 masks or P2 standard; protection of all existing health and safety rights and obligations; and the federal reinstatement of income support for workers who have lost their jobs and businesses affected by COVID-19.
These are all important measures. However, to force the government to make these concessions unions will need to mobilise their members as well as ask for broader community support.
Governments are making healthcare workers the collateral damage in their rush to “get back to normal”. Now, we are seeing the same treatment being meted out to wharfies, truck drivers, teachers and children.
If we are to survive the pandemic, the response must be worker-led, be guided by health professionals and put public health before private profit.
[Sarah Hathway is a union organiser in the health industry and a national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance.]