29 March 2020
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Clarifying some grey areas of Australia’s coronavirus response

Sophia Katsinas
26 March 2020

Prime Minister Scott Morrison officially announced the closure of “non-essential” businesses on Sunday 22 March, 2020. This decision meant coronavirus has potentially impacted every Australian citizen. The responses to this virus are hitting home for everyone, and the majority of people I know have lost their jobs because of it, which is something I never expected to witness in a very fortunate middle-class society like Australia’s.

But there are still some grey areas and questions floating around amongst every day Australians:

What is an essential service?

On Sunday 22 March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the closure of “non-essential” services.

Due to the lack of clarity voiced by a concerned Australian public, the Prime Minister held another press conference at 9pm on Tuesday night, where he specifically stated “Everyone who has a job in this economy is an essential worker. Every single job that is being done in our economy with these severe restrictions that are taking place is essential.”

He then continued to specify which businesses would be forced to shut down, and that businesses who can implement working from home measures are “strongly encouraged” to do so.

The full list of prohibited activities and venues that will apply from 11.59pm on 25 March 2020 can be accessed here: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/update-coronavirus-measures-24-March-2020

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed the shutdown on Monday 23 March, and specified which “non-essential activities and businesses” would be temporarily shut down. She specified:

  • Pubs, registered clubs
  • Gyms, indoor sporting venues
  • Cinemas, entertainment venues, casinos, and night clubs
  • Restaurants and cafes will be restricted to takeaway and/or home delivery
  • Religious gatherings, places of worship (excluding small weddings and funerals that comply with the 4m2 rule, which can proceed)

“It is important to note essential gatherings at places such as hospitals, workplaces, constructions sites and for public transport are exempt and will continue. As confirmed last night by the Prime Minister schools will remain open, based on health advice, which has not changed,” announced the Premier. Though she also specified “For practical reasons, parents are encouraged to keep their children at home.”

Should my workplace be isolating?

Under the guidance of the Prime Minister’s announcement, it would mean that every business outside of those specifically listed is able to continue trading.

Ultimately, the aim is to limit areas where large crowds are able to congregate. Though, the message is still quite inconsistent and confusing as we are being told to stay home, have bans on gatherings, reprimanded for going outside, but only certain jobs have had to stop and are deemed “non-essential” despite the Prime Minister stating that “everyone who has a job in this economy is an essential worker”.

As a general rule of thumb, unless your workplace has not been specified as a prohibited activity on this table (https://www.pm.gov.au/media/update-coronavirus-measures-24-March-2020), and your work cannot be adapted into an online environment, you are still able to go to work. But outside of work, you should be going straight home, not visiting anyone, picking up your dinner and taking it home, going to the supermarket quickly, and generally trying to limit your time in public.

If you are feeling anxious or uncertain about going into work, you should communicate this with your workplace. Though, a common response is that workplaces are encouraging staff who do not feel comfortable coming to work to take annual leave.

Ultimately, it’s more likely that your bosses are encouraging you to come to work to try and limit the panic and anxiety surrounding this pandemic, while also fighting for you to keep your job. So, try your best to really implement a team strategy and work together.

Can I legally lose my job because of coronavirus shutdowns?

All businesses are suffering at the moment, and with the looming whispers of words like “recession” and even “depression” being thrown around, business owners are reconsidering their costs. When working from home measures are put in place, and then Bondi Beach packs out enough for the Prime Minister to call it out, this doesn’t assure employers that keeping all their staff on is necessary for productivity.

This is another grey area. The businesses that were specified as “non-essential” predominantly hire casual staff. What is currently happening is that casual workers will not get shifts until their venues are specified to reopen, which means they have temporarily lost their jobs. People in this situation are encouraged to reach out to Centrelink.

Students who held casual jobs that are no longer operational are able to apply for welfare payments including youth allowance, Austudy and Abstudy, which will be boosted by $550 a fortnight.

Economist Saul Eslake told ABC’s PM, “If casual employees simply aren’t called into work for reasons connected to coronavirus and the measures put in place to contain it, then those people will effectively become unemployed and will have to fall back on the Newstart allowance.”

Newstart allowance ended on 20 March, 2020, and was renamed JobSeeker Payment. Those who were on Newstart before 20 March will have automatically been moved to JobSeeker Payment, which is now an umbrella welfare system for job seekers or workers who are “sick or injured”.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told the ABC that, "our focus is on targeted measures using the existing tax and transfer system and making it as simple and as easy as possible for Australians to get that support."

Part-time or full-time employees are in a different boat. They can still be stood down if work has to stop for “any cause for which the employer cannot reasonably be held responsible,” according to workplace laws. This does not mean a slowdown in trade caused by coronavirus, so you may have a case for unfair dismissal if you do get laid off because of a slowdown in trade. Though, businesses that were specified to close by the Prime Minister can apply this law, as the employer cannot be held responsible.

Have any more questions you’d like answered about coronavirus closures? Let us know in the comments below.

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