Coronavirus pandemic shakes up Australian workplaces, as businesses prepare for the other side – ABC News - Freelance Rack

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Sunday, May 3, 2020

Coronavirus pandemic shakes up Australian workplaces, as businesses prepare for the other side – ABC News

On a dark, chilly morning on Melbourne’s urban fringe, Dani McFarlane is getting ready to leave for work at a busy childcare centre. And she’s feeling scared.

“Obviously, social distancing doesn’t happen there,” she said.

“You can’t change the nappies from 2 metres away. You can’t hug them from 2 metres away. They’re going to cry, they’re going to be upset — you need to comfort them.”

Ms McFarlane is one of the millions of Australian workers in essential industries who don’t have the option of working from home.

Instead, she spends her days caring for the children of other essential workers — including staff from the large hospital nearby.

“I think the community has done little bits, mainly for emergency services. But I also think they don’t see the little people — like the supermarket workers, and in the takeaway places that have lost so much money. And us.”

Six weeks into the biggest shakeup of the Australian workplace since World War II, a divide is emerging.

It’s between people who can work from home, who are more likely to be safer and better off, and those who can’t — like cleaners, security guards and supermarket staff.

Pandemic could ‘compound inequality’

Alison Pennington, a senior economist at The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, said it was easy to see how the pandemic work regime could compound inequality in Australia.

“We estimate people who can work from home are earning around 24 per cent more than those who can’t,” she said.

“They’re also more likely to have paid sick leave benefits — while essential workers who are turning out every day, are more likely to work for lower pay, but also less likely to have sick leave.”

Ms Pennington said those differences were creating a greater inequality, not only in incomes, but also health outcomes, as essential workers faced the higher risk of infection without the income safety net of sick leave.

“So coming through this regime, what we’re going to find is that the pandemic is going to require a universal entitlement to sick leave if we’re going to be able to work through the virus and keep everyone safe,” she said.

Only around 15 per cent of Australian workers currently have the option of working remotely full time, according to Centre for Future Work estimates, but that’s expected to double as companies quickly adapt to allow more of their employees to stay away from the office.

The double-edged sword of working from home for women

Clare Harding, who heads up the post-COVID-19 transition at consulting firm Deloitte, said her company did not want workplace practices to revert to the way things were done in January 2020 once the pandemic passes.

“It [working from home] can be a really, really beneficial thing — for people who need to care for others, or who look after children, or need different working patterns,” she said.

“We’ve shown in the last six weeks it’s completely possible to do that, and we’d love to be able to do more of it.”

A woman wearing a red jacket standing in front of a window.

A woman wearing a red jacket standing in front of a window.

Clare Harding of Deloitte said the value of flexible working arrangements had been demonstrated in the past six weeks.(Supplied)

Women are significantly more likely to have the option of working remotely — an estimated 36 per cent, compared to 27 per cent of men, who are more strongly represented in trades and manual work.

But Alison Pennington said that also risked widening the already huge gap between men and women when it came to caring duties.

Last week, the Washington Post reported that since the shutdown in the US, male academics appeared to be submitting more academic papers than usual, while women were submitting fewer.

“If caring demands ratchet up, women are more likely to suffer income losses,” Ms Pennington said.

A woman with dark hair in a home office.

A woman with dark hair in a home office.

Alison Pennington said women were more likely to lose financially if childcare demands grew.(Supplied)

Nor should women — or anyone — be forced to work from home if it presents a risk to their physical or mental health, according to Paul Guerra from the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI).

“One of the strongest indicators of a mental health issue is behaviour change, which is really easy to hide on a video call, but much harder to hide in the office,” he said.

“Likewise, there are people who are offered the opportunity to work from home who won’t take it because the home environment is not conducive.”

On the other hand, he said remote working offered opportunities for workers in regional areas and with disabilities to access better-paying jobs.

A smiling man stands in a garden wearing a light blue jacket.

A smiling man stands in a garden wearing a light blue jacket.

VECCI’s chief executive Paul Guerra said not everyone who had the opportunity to work from home wanted to.(Supplied)

Business considers staggered on-site return for workers

As states begin to gradually lift restrictions, and companies begin to phase their employees back into offices and factories, the risk to those who have no choice but to be out in public increases.

Deloitte’s Clare Harding said it was something she was acutely aware of.

“As office workers, we’re very, very grateful to those people,” she said.

‘The things that we can do is be considerate about how we bring our workers back to work.

“For example, using public transport. If there is a request by the Government that requires fewer people to be traveling at any one time, our workers should be at the back of the queue, and essential workers should be at the front of the queue.”

But Ms McFarlane simply wants governments to do more to keep her and her fellow workers safe.

“We shouldn’t have to go out and buy thermometers for the pre-screen health check, or the masks, or whatever that we need,” she said.

“I think the Government should have — for essential workers — provided that to every single workplace.”

Tune in to Virginia Trioli on ABC Radio Melbourne this morning from 8:30am for a panel discussion on how our changing workplaces are evolving in response to the pandemic.

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