The Omicron wave of COVID-19 is causing mass disruption to the Australian retail sector’s current supply chain issues, while highlighting the precarious and unsustainable position of Australia’s retail workers, according to experts at The Australian National University (ANU).
Professor Ariadne Vromen, from the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, has researched the issues facing Australia’s retail workers, who comprise 11 per cent of the Australian workforce. She said the current scenario facing retail workers is unsustainable.
“The disruption wrought by COVID-19 is not going away in 2022,” Professor Vromen said.
“When our mitigation of the spread of infection relies on isolation, there needs to be proper and rapid compensation for those who cannot continue to earn an income. Governments and employers need to realise that frontline workers of all kinds are more at risk of infection, and that casual workers in retail and fast-food industries are some of those most vulnerable to a financial crisis as well.”
Joint research by Professor Vromen and experts from ANU and the University of Sydney Business School found that even before the Omicron wave hit our shores, retail workers were losing working hours and taking unpaid leave for pandemic-related reasons.
A nationally-representative survey of nearly 1200 retail and fast-food workers was conducted in September 2021, a few months before the emergence of the Omicron variant. At the time, only one per cent of retail workers had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Now, up to five per cent of Australians have had COVID-19.
“We found that 55 per cent of workers in this sector had taken some time off work due to COVID-19 related reasons in the previous 18 months,” Professor Vromen said.
She said the highly casualised nature of work in retail and fast-food sector meant that it had become increasingly difficult for workers to access payments from their workplace via paid leave.
“Casual workers, by definition, rarely have access to sick leave and other forms of paid leave. It is this group of people who will be finding it increasingly hard and unaffordable, particularly when they’re close contacts, without COVID-19 or asymptomatic, to take time away from work,” Professor Vromen said.
“During the last month of Omicron in Australia, many precarious workers will have gone without income at all, while the popular discussion has tended to focus on the disadvantages to those who are self-sufficient or on paid holiday leave.
“It is only this week that workers in New South Wales and Victoria have been able to officially register their positive rapid antigen test results with their state-based social services department.”
Most states provide a targeted Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment where eligible applicants can access $750 a week for two weeks if they have been directed by the Health department to isolate and stay at home. This is for both people with COVID-19, and in some circumstances, close contacts and carers.
“As we have seen, the number of workers with COVID-19 in NSW and Victoria has increased dramatically due to the possibility of registering rapid antigen test results,” Professor Vromen said.
“Registration of a positive result is the only way ill workers can access extra payments while they aren’t able to work.”
The research also showed 59 per cent of retail workers weren’t being paid while getting a COVID-19 test or while waiting for results, while 63 per cent had no income if they were a close contact or had symptoms of the virus.
Once diagnosed, 67 per cent of retail workers accessed paid sick leave.
Professor Vromen said Omicron is a game changer, with tens of thousands of people contracting the variant every day, disproportionately concentrated among young people.
“As frontline workers, retail workers are among the most exposed,” she said.
“This necessarily changes the financial, social, health and government support they need. The vast majority of retail and fast food workers cannot work from home. There are those in the frontline with customer-facing jobs, and others working in logistics and warehouses, organising delivery of food and consumable products. Only a very small proportion work in an office with predominantly desk work that can be undertaken at home.”
Words: Michael Weaver
Graphic: Anya Wotton