As the coronavirus spreads, more and more Aussie workers are being told to self-isolate at home. But for Australia’s 3.3 million casual workers, this is not possible without sacrificing income.

The reality is that many young Aussies literally can’t afford to follow standard medical advice amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The case of a man in his 20s diagnosed with coronavirus in Tasmania who ignored medical advice and returned to work presented the bleak conundrum Australia’s casual workforce finds itself in: self-isolate and forgo a paycheck, or return to work and potentially spread the disease.

The man was a casual staff member at Hobart’s Hotel Grand Chancellor and had worked seven shifts during the period in which he was instructed to quarantine himself at home. He ended up testing positive for the disease.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost half of workers under 24 are casual, and the majority of all casual workers are under 35. Young people are therefore disproportionately effected when it comes to missing out on sick leave.

This also has impacts for the wider population. The main two industries which employ casual workers are hospitality and retail – industries in which there is a higher chance for workers to come into contact with members of the public.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions estimates that around a third of workers, or 3.3 million people, have no access to paid sick leave.

“The grim reality is that if these workers become ill they will either attend work sick, be stood down by their employer without pay or potentially be subject to self-isolation regimes, imposed by the Morrison government, again without means to pay their bills,” said ACTU Secretary Sally McManus in a statement.

The union is calling for the government to pay sick leave allowances to casual workers as part of its multi-billion dollar coronavirus stimulus package, expected to be announced later this week.

“Workers without access to paid leave will be placed in the impossible position of choosing whether to attend work while suffering symptoms, possibly infecting others, or self-isolating without any means to pay their bills,” McManus said.

Similar calls are being made to raise Newstart payments and reduce in-person requirements that are not possible for those undergoing quarantine. The government has not announced any specific measures yet.

While casual workers grapple with this dilemma, their employers continue with business as usual.

The Hotel Grand Chancellor, where the infected man worked, has contacted staff who may have come into contact with the him, and has deep cleaned its premises. It remains open for business.

Image: AAP / Dan Peled