Retail workers in danger of slipping through the cracks

Melbourne’s move to a stage-4 lockdown has put further financial pressure on many retailers as they close down physical sites, and could lead to the standing down of in-store staff that are no longer “essential”.

And with the recent uplifts in sales across the retail industry, as consumers came out of the first lockdown and supported the economy, some of these retailers may not qualify for the 30 per cent threshold to keep JobKeeper beyond September – leaving a big gap in their ability to pay for their staff.

Australian Retailers’ Association chief executive Paul Zahra told the AFR that, for now, the issue is confined to Victoria.

“We’re having ongoing consultations with both the state and federal governments on this specific issue,” Zahra said. “That position has been put to the government [and] they are working on it.”

Federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said the Government is watching the space closely.

“We don’t want businesses that have been really badly hit through the September period but may not have met the 30 per cent threshold in the June period [to miss out],” Federal treasurer Josh Fryndenberg told the ABC.

The Prime Minister was quick to add that the changes to JobKeeper are months away, while Victoria’s lockdown is expected to last for six weeks, meaning these stood down workers could be back at work before the problem rears its head.

Should the lockdown be extended, or should more states enter a similar lockdown situation, hundreds of thousands of workers could re-enter a state of underemployment.

And the Reserve Bank estimates the unemployment rate will hit 10 per cent by the end of the year, with any further lockdowns likely to exacerbate this.

The rate would be the result of locked-down Victoria suffering further job losses and more people elsewhere in Australia seeking work, Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe said after the central bank’s monthly board meeting on Tuesday.

Pressure pays off on pandemic payments

Morrison isn’t afraid to give further support when there is enough noise, however.

After weeks of pressure from industry firms and union leaders, the Prime Minister has extended an offer of federal paid pandemic leave to states other

than Victoria.

The one off $1500 pandemic payment for workers that do not already have access to sick leave is already available to employees in Victoria.

“If other states or territories want to enter into a similar arrangement, then I’ll be making that offer to the states and territories if they wish to do that,” Morrison said.

“Of course, they’re not facing the same level of challenge. The health advice we had out of Victoria was to do this.”

There have been concerns, however, that $1500 over the course of a fortnight of self-isolation for Australians ordered to stay home following a Covid-19 test will not be enough to live on.

The ACTU has pointed out that $1500 a fortnight is less than half that of the average Australian wage.

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott told the ABC, however, that the pandemic payment goes a long way in removing the disincentive for people who have to be tested, and have to stay home, if they are missing sick leave.

“I think it’s a really good start,” Westcott said. “I think it takes the burden off particularly small businesses. But there’s always going to be arguments about can it go further?”

The BCA and ACTU drafted a joint letter on Tuesday calling for the government to introduce a paid pandemic leave scheme, rather than a single pandemic payment.

“We acknowledge the efforts of the Victorian Government to introduce its own scheme,” the letter said. “Unfortunately, the mechanisms available to state governments to effectively implement and administer such a scheme are inadequate and consequently we have seen minimal take up over recent weeks.”

A paid pandemic leave scheme should make amendments to the Fair Work Act, provide reimbursement to business to facilitate the entitlements, and be funded by Federal and State governments, according to the BCA and ACTU.

This story first appeared on our sister publication Inside Retail

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