Aust-first paid sick leave for Vic casuals

Callum Godde and Emily Woods |

Ruby Lethbridge knew it was wrong when she went to work so sick she was barely able to speak, but felt she had no choice.

Living paycheque to paycheque without sick leave, the casual Melbourne hospitality worker filled shifts over the past six years while ill with tonsillitis as well as cold and flu symptoms.

Ms Lethbridge says she felt guilty at the time and the workplace mentality backfired when the venue was forced to close amid a COVID outbreak in December.

“I would like to apologise on behalf of myself and other casual workers in our industry because prior to COVID, during the pandemic and the lockdowns we all worked while we were sick,” she told reporters.

There won’t be a need for future apologies, as she’s one of 150,000 Victorian workers now eligible for sick and carer’s leave under an Australian-first pilot scheme announced on Monday.

The $245.6 million, two-year trial will offer casual and insecure workers five days of paid sick or carer’s leave per year at the national minimum wage of $20.33 per hour.

Workers in hospitality, security, retail, cleaning and aged and disability care can apply for the scheme from Monday, with payments expected to land in their bank account within five days.

“The pandemic has exposed things that are just wrong, and we have to do more and we have to do better,” Premier Daniel Andrews said.

The two-year pilot will be funded by the Victorian government.

If extended, the Andrews government has not decided how the scheme will be paid for, although an industry levy has been floated as a possibility. 

Workplace Safety Minister Ingrid Stitt says the government will consider expanding the “safety net” to other industries and the leave entitlements will renew each year but won’t roll over if unused. 

A medical certificate will be required for those claiming more than 15 hours paid leave, while smaller claims only need to be supported with “limited evidence”.

The premier ultimately wants the federal government to consider a national approach for a paid sick leave system that caters for casuals and contractors.

“Let’s be clear; insecure work is toxic. It’s not just toxic in our state, it’s a problem across the whole country,” Mr Andrews said.

When Victoria set aside $5 million to develop the pilot scheme in November 2020, then-federal attorney-general Christian Porter branded it a “business and employment-killing approach”.

Mr Andrews rubbished the claim.

“I’ll tell you what makes business really difficult is when someone comes to work really sick and makes everyone else sick,” he said.

The United Workers Union has called on the federal government to amend the National Employment Standards to ensure 10 days of paid sick leave for all workers, or consider a similar program.

But several industry groups are not on board, attacking the prospect of a levy.

The Australia Industry Group wants the scheme abandoned outright, while the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says it should end after the two-year trial.

Victorian Liberal deputy leader David Southwick said a levy would cost jobs if small businesses footed the bill, and indicated the opposition may scrap the trial if elected in November.

“I think that’s where we’ll head,” he said.