Workers dealing with the public are putting themselves at risk every day. An employment lawyer answers the big questions many are asking.
Workers dealing with the public are putting themselves at risk every day. An employment lawyer answers the big questions many are asking.

What frontline workers need to know about virus

Australia's frontline workers are putting themselves at risk every time they serve a customer, pick up a passenger or make a home visit, but for many it is not just their health at stake.

Self-employed workers in sectors such as transport and the trades have no contractual entitlement to paid sick leave or annual leave so are left without an income if they test positive to COVID-19 and must self isolate.

Silver Service and 13Cabs head of public affairs David Samuel said taxi drivers were essentially small businesses, rather than employees, so they were "vulnerable to downturns in work".

Taxi drivers are vulnerable to downturns in work. Picture: AAP
Taxi drivers are vulnerable to downturns in work. Picture: AAP

"We always say to the government, the taxi fare needs to account for that, because if they get sick, they need to be able to pay their bills," he said.

Uber, however, is offering financial assistance to drivers who are unable to work.

A spokesperson said drivers and delivery partners diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in quarantine by a public health authority would receive compensation for up to 14 days.

"We believe this is the right thing to do," they said.

"Drivers around the world are also receiving in-app messages and emails reminding them of basic steps they can take to help prevent the spread of the virus, which draws on advice from public health authorities."

Passengers and drivers are being urged to follow social distancing protocols. Picture: AAP
Passengers and drivers are being urged to follow social distancing protocols. Picture: AAP

Taxi companies were also implementing policies to help prevent drivers from contracting the virus.

Although it was not feasible to distribute face masks to all of Silver Service and 13Cabs' 30,000 drivers, Mr Samuel said they were being asked to disinfect their car after every passenger.

"We are bringing all our fleet in and cleaning the cars and educating the drivers," he said.

"We rolled the hygiene project out on Thursday last week and progressively we are doing that across the country - cleaning it, showing the driver how to do it, giving them the equipment they need.

"We want the community to know we are doing everything we can to keep the cars as clean and virus-free as possible."

He also advised passengers and drivers to follow social distancing protocols, recommending passengers opt for the back seat when possible.

"A lot of drivers are asking passengers to tap their own card on the EFTPOS machine," he said.

"People shouldn't take offence."

Commuters are turning away from public transport and using more taxis.
Commuters are turning away from public transport and using more taxis.

Mr Samuel said COVID-19 was affecting every business but the taxi industry had to be particularly prepared as they expected an increase in passengers.

"As people retreat from public transport, they want private transport, so we are preparing the fleet," he said.

Meanwhile in the trade sector, job bookings were in decline.

Chief customer officer of find-a-tradie website HiPages Stuart Tucker said their had been fewer job requests posted on the online marketplace for tradespeople since the crisis escalated last week.

"This is likely to have an impact on large and medium trade businesses, as well as sole-traders," he said.

"The Australian trade industry is a significant economic driver with the residential trade sector alone contributing to almost 6 per cent of the nation's GDP.

"For most trade businesses, the decline in jobs will affect revenue, which is why we support the Federal Government's stimulus package announcement."



Mr Tucker said HiPages had 40,000 tradies ready to help Australian homeowners fulfil jobs around the home, including unexpected, emergency jobs.

"We encourage our tradies to regularly check and follow the health protocols recommended by the Federal and State Government to ensure they take the appropriate measures to protect themselves and those around them whilst working," he said.

"For tradies this can include greeting customers at the door but remaining a safe distance apart per the social distancing guidelines and staying home if you feel unwell."

Many workers across the industries were already feeling the effects of COVID-19 - losing their jobs, receiving fewer hours, working from home and being asked to take leave.

Bennett & Philp senior associate and employment law expert Lachlan Thorburn broke down some of the most common questions from workers:



Mr Thorburn said employee entitlements for most organisations had not changed since the pandemic was declared.

"If they contract the coronavirus, they will be entitled to use their personal leave, or if a family member contracts it, they can take carer's leave," he said.

"Once that has been used up, they can take annual leave or any long service leave.

"Unfortunately, in circumstances where their entitlements run out, in all likelihood they have to take unpaid leave unless there is another arrangement with the employer.

"And that's just for full-time or part-time employees."



"In a shutdown, the employer might stagger their workforce and ask some to take their annual leave or long service leave during certain periods where there is no work," Mr Thorburn said.

"The other alternative is the employer may seek to stand down all or part of their workforce."

He said a pandemic, such as the coronavirus, was the kind of event which may allow a business to stand down its employees under section 524 of The Fair Work Act 2009.

This applied during "a period in which the employee cannot usefully be employed because of … a stoppage of work for any cause for which the employer cannot reasonably be held responsible".

"The Act provides the employer doesn't have to pay the employee but that being said, if the employee has accrued entitlements and wishes to take annual leave, it would be difficult for an employer to refuse that request," he said.

"If they did, it might be deemed unreasonable in those circumstances."

He said employees with significant entitlements saved up would be secure in having an income but those without might have to go through a period of not being paid.

Mr Thorburn said employers may ask employees to drop down to a four-day work week by taking some of their annual leave but could not change their contract from full-time to part-time employment.



Mr Thorburn said every employer owed their employees a duty of care.

"They are governed by OHS laws to provide a safe work environment for all employees," he said.

"That may extend to protective gear, definitely for frontline emergency workers but also potentially with people like taxi drivers.

"There should be some protective measure to ensure those employees are safe."

He said employees could potentially bring legal action against an employer if they were exposed to an unreasonable risk of contracting the coronavirus while working, however that would be dictated by government policy.

"As long as the employer is taking prudent steps if there are any people infected with the virus at work and ensuring the workplace has been treated, it would be difficult for an employee to bring an action against an employer - unless they showed there was complete disregard for the employee's safety and that they acted negligently in those circumstances," he said.

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