With governments and workplaces now rapidly escalating their responses to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the crisis has shone a spotlight on the inherent precariousness of casual employment here at home.
McDonald Murholme Senior Associate Arthur Hambas says that casual workers are particularly vulnerable due to the nature of their employment.
“Casual employment is essentially defined by the lack of any firm commitment, by either employer or employee, about how long the employment will last as well as the hours and days on which they will work. It accordingly follows that an employer will not typically be under any obligation to offer a casual employee ongoing work and similarly, the casual employee will not be under any obligation to accept work when it is offered.
“Because of this, casual employees do not possess the suite of entitlements that permanent employees typically possess at law. These entitlements include access to paid personal leave when you are sick or injured, and access to paid carer’s leave to provide care for somebody who may be ill.
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“In view of the above, it is clear that casual employee’s will likely be hit hard by the current crisis.
“If a casual employee were to contract COVID 19, they obviously should not be attending work and should advise their employer of their inability to do so until cleared.
“However, they will typically have no underlying right to paid personal leave like a permanent employee would otherwise have.
“In view of the prevailing medical advice as to a) expected infection rates across the Australian population, b) the likely duration of a patient’s symptoms, and c) imposed restrictions around quarantine and self-isolation, large portions of country’s casual labour force can regrettably expect to go without their usual pay for extended periods of time while they have the illness.
“Another way casuals will be disproportionately affected is where an employer were to stand down its workforce due to an outbreak or suspected outbreak. This will result in the casual employee not receiving any shifts for the period, even if they themselves are not unwell. During such a period, the casual employee will go without pay.
“Finally, it’s appearing increasingly likely that many employers will seek to reduce labour costs during the crisis as a result of demand side downward pressure. This may lead to a reduction in shifts for casual staff.
“Again, this regrettably will mean that these affected employees will go without pay for the shifts that they otherwise would have been able and willing to work.
“As the above should illustrate, the current crisis will disproportionately impact Australia’s 3.3 million strong casual workforce which unfortunately does not enjoy the same safety net of entitlements that permanent employees have.
“Fortunately, some large companies are implementing “special leave” policies applying to their casual workforces to help share the burden. These employers should be commended for their efforts. For other operators either unable or unwilling to offer such policies though, both they and their casual employees may well start looking to government to step in.”