13 Apr 2020

Paying 'casual' workers during Covid-19 lockdown: Are government agencies ignoring official advice?

3:36 pm on 13 April 2020

Government departments appear to be ignoring State Services Commission (SSC) Covid-19 guidance about continuing to pay 'casual' employees who are now without work and struggling to pay their bills.

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Photo: 123RF

In recent days RNZ has documented the stories of workers who were employed as 'casual' staff by publicly-funded entities. This has included nurses, health care assistants, council staff and those in the cultural sector. All are excluded from receiving the wage subsidy because they are considered to be government employees.

While they are on casual contracts, many had been working the same number of weekly hours for years. Since the lockdown their hours have been slashed.

On 3 April the SSC, which has oversight of the public sector, provided the following advice to departments about casual employees:

"Some casual workers are engaged on a frequent, casual basis - for example where called on at short notice a number of times in a typical period. In these circumstances the employer would have expected to utilise the casual worker over the coming weeks and so for this Covid-19 response, agencies should consider paying a typical average level of pay for the period, to continue to support an important employment group and to recognise that these employees don't have access to support through the government's wage subsidy scheme."

*See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

New Zealand Nurses Organisation industrial adviser David Wait said it made "no sense" that state sector groups like DHBs would not follow the above guidelines.

"Many of these people work regularly and close to full time hours. By not following these guidelines the DHBs are placing healthcare workers and their families in financial peril and risk losing these workers permanently at a time when nurses all over the country are being put into isolation. We are talking about the wellbeing of 7000 people and their families. DHBs need to look after healthcare workers so that they can look after us."

DHBs believed their response to casual workers was consistent with the general guidance provided by SSC, as well as the government's wage subsidy rules.

Michael Frampton, the joint human resources lead for the District Health Boards' (DHB) Covid-19 Workforce Group, said casual employees played an important role in the delivery of healthcare and DHBs "hugely valued" their work.

He said a casual employee was a person who was able to accept or decline offers of work. People chose to be casual employees for many reasons, including the flexibility of being able to choose their days and hours of work.

Frampton said DHBs used casual workers to respond to demand in hospitals, for example covering annual leave taken by other workers or providing additional support when hospital occupancy was high.

"As part of preparing and responding to the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, hospitals have lowered occupancy and reduced elective or deferrable activity so they have capacity to treat those in need of care from Covid-19. Unfortunately, this has reduced the usual work for casual staff. DHBs are continually reviewing their activities and as this picks up, opportunities for casual workers will increase."

Frampton said a range of measures had been taken to support casual workers at this challenging time, including honouring booked shifts even if they were not worked, and offering other employment opportunities where possible, such as working in Community-based Assessment Centres. There were also permanent and fixed-term opportunities for casual workers who wanted greater certainty of income.

"Some have changed working arrangements, although most have chosen to stay on casual terms and keep the flexibility to choose when they work."

Wait said the measures DHBs had taken to support the workers were "wholly inadequate".

"It is a fiction to say that there are anywhere near enough other employment opportunities, or that these workers are making the choice to remain casual at this time and 'choose when they work'."

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

The Health Ministry, despite working with the unions and DHBs to find a solution, added little, saying it was an "employment matter".

"The Ministry does recognise the importance and valuable contribution of the health workforce, including those whose hours of work may have been affected. We understand this situation is difficult for those impacted. We are strongly encouraging the union and DHBs to keep working together to resolve this situation."

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