What does the spread of COVID-19 mean for casual workers?

Workers without paid sick leave have additional reasons to worry about the coronavirus outbreak. Source: Getty Images

With more cases of the coronavirus in Australia what does the spread of the disease mean for casual workers and those engaged in the gig economy?

The coronavirus outbreak has put the number of Australians without access to sick leave into sharp focus. According to government data, there are approximately 2.5 million casual workers in Australia, who have no access to paid sick leave if they contract COVID-19.

ACTU Secretary Sally McManus says the government has "allowed" Australia's workforce to be "casualised", and the current COVID-19 crisis is bringing to fore "the day to day struggles of casual workers".

"In fact, [casual workers] don't know how many hours a day they're going to get, they can be let go at any time. The fact that people might have to stay home for weeks on end without pay, when they've got no leave is fortunately the extreme end of that. And the longer term response needs to be from our government to decrease the number of casual and insecure jobs we have," she said.

"So what we're asking for is this, in the national response that Australia has to the coronavirus, casual employees, gig economy employees must not be left out. They must be a key part of our response for health reasons, as well as for justice reasons."

Coping with illness as a casual worker 

Jemille is in her early twenties and lives in regional Victoria. She works between 6 and 20 hours a week in retail as a casual employee. She says casual work means “you are potentially always on edge”, especially when “you’ve got an additional factor like illness.”

“Because with retail, a lot of places at the moment they are going into administration, they are struggling already.”

A number of Australian retailers have closed since the beginning of the year, including Harris Scarfe, EB Games, Bardot, Jeanswest and Colette. Jemille says the instability in the retail industry “makes it a bit harder” for casual retail staff.

Jemille got sick just before Christmas last year, and says it felt “like a death sentence” and is still recovering from those two weeks without work. 

“In having gastro, it meant that I missed a week of work, and lost a few hundred dollars worth of my usual income. So around Christmas time already, you've got those days off work. You've got breaks and public holidays, so it meant that I was living off the money I had made the week before,” she said.

“And not having that income a week after I've already gone back to work, so that's two weeks worth of not having any money. Then having things like bills show up, and having things like needing to go get medication, needing to go get food.”

Those two weeks without work meant Jemille is still having to “claw back the money” she spent, “it basically ate into my savings, and just you can't claw it back when you've lost those weeks. It's an uphill battle.”

Despite having insecure work that ranges between 6 to 20 hours a week, Jemille says she is “quite lucky.”

“I've got a job rather than a lot of people who don't have a job at all. Or have casual work where they only get one shift a month. Or one shift every few weeks.”

She cannot imagine if she got “sick again”, but says she would have to rely on her partner for “everything” that financial instability “would ruin everything for her.”

How about the gig economy?

Adam Nelson is a spokesperson for Rideshare Drivers Cooperation in Queensland, he says rideshare companies  haven’t released enough information to drivers.

“Well at the moment, there has been no official communication from Uber about the coronavirus / covid-19 virus in the APAC region,” he said.

Uber Australia says they contacted driver-partners in late January sharing information from Australian health authorities regarding COVID-19 - and further information was also sent out in the past week.

“We work closely with public health authorities in each state, and have processes to temporarily remove an individual’s access to the Uber apps if authorities report an infection,” a spokesperson for the ridesharing service said.

“Drivers and delivery people around the world are also receiving an in-app message reminding them of basic steps they can take to help prevent the spread of the virus which draws on advice from public health authorities.

“We are always working to help ensure the safety of everyone on the Uber platform and have formed a dedicated global team of Uber operations, security and safety executives, guided by the advice of a consulting public health expert, to respond as needed in each market where we operate around the world.”

Nelson says rideshare drivers cannot “control” the spread of virus unless people are following “proper hygiene practices,” he says “we as drivers can't clean the car after every passenger leaves and enters. This is an impossible task.”

Fairwork Australia last year ruled that Uber drivers weren’t employees but rather “independent contractors”. The Fairwork Ombudsman Sandra Park said at the time that the relationship between Uber Australia and drivers “is not an employment relationship." 

"For such a relationship to exist, the courts have determined that there must be, at a minimum, an obligation for an employee to perform work when it is demanded by the employer.”

Nelson says the reality of being an independent contract means “some drivers live week to week.”

“So you can use your imagination to understand what will happen to those infected drivers who don't have enough savings to keep them in isolation for two weeks, then having to sanitise the car clean and waiting for the rideshare company to clear [them to] drive again.”