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It seems counterintuitive that heightened hygiene and cleaning practices are our strongest protection against COVID-19, yet many of those who are tasked with carrying out this important work face barriers to taking paid sick leave when they need to. The cleaning industry, prior to COVID-19, has had systemic personal leave policies and practices that do not meet minimum legal requirements. This contributed to cleaners coming to work sick. Not only is this an unlawful denial of cleaners’ entitlements, it places them in a position that forces them to risk their own health along with that of their co-workers, building tenants and the public. The risks are far greater now, with the presence of COVID-19. With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions and the push for economic recovery, there are high expectations from all parties for quality cleaning that will enable the reoccupation of workplaces and shopping centres. Critical to this is the capacity of the cleaning workforce to stay home when they are sick. 

Sick leave practices prior to COVID-19

Within the cleaning industry there is a precedent for unlawful sick leave practices. Cleaners are entitled to ten days’ paid personal/carer’s leave per year under the National Employment Standards. Approximately 90% of cleaners in Australia have sick leave entitlements, yet many have reported that they have faced challenges in taking paid sick leave and will go to work instead of staying home. There are a number of interconnected factors contributing to this situation, including: 

  • Underpriced contracts: The full cost of cleaners’ sick leave is not budgeted for in most contract prices. On average, procurers of cleaning services will only pay cleaning contractors enough to allocate 6 days of sick leave per year, rather than the legal minimum of 10 days, with the assumption that not all cleaners will use up all of their entitlement. This cost pressure incentivises cleaning contractors to impose restrictions on how their cleaners can take sick leave.
  • Non-compliant personal leave policies: In 2019, CAF found that 50% of the buildings it audited were required to update their personal leave policy so it complies with the Fair Work Act. CAF found instances of non-compliant practices such as: 
    • a contractor requiring cleaners to provide a minimum of 8 hours’ notice prior to their shift starting if they were sick; in another case, cleaners were threatened with disciplinary action (including termination) if they did not notify their employer at least 4 hours prior to the start of their shift. Such restrictions on notification are unlawful, though common in the cleaning industry. 
    • cleaners being categorised as being “off work” or “absent” without pay where the cleaner had in fact called in sick but had not understood the process to follow to access their leave entitlement (for example, needing to supply their employer evidence of being unfit for work).
    • employers requiring cleaners to provide a doctor’s certificate even for a single day’s absence, when a statutory declaration is a legally acceptable form of evidence.
  • Employers pressuring cleaners into coming into work sick. CAF has encountered instances where cleaners:
    • reported being threatened with job loss via text message or phone call by their supervisor if they called in sick. For example, the following case was reported to CAF by a former cleaner who now works as an organiser at United Workers Union:

      “If anyone calls in for sick in the morning, he [supervisor] calls them again and again in the afternoon to see if they can come to work. If they say I can’t, he tells them to take medicine and come to work. He also tells them you are not sick, you are just lying, just come to work.”

    • feel implicitly or explicitly pressured to come to work sick because their supervisor may not be able to find someone else to replace them at short notice, or the supervisor may themselves face pressure from above to reduce overtime or use of casuals in order to stay competitive in the low margin cleaning contract market.
  • Cleaners not understanding the process to follow to access their leave entitlement: Language barriers and complicated and conflicting policies that differ between head office and site-based management contribute to the incidence of cleaners turning up to work or not getting paid when they take sick leave.

  • Barriers to complying with evidentiary requirements: Most cleaners are told they need to supply a doctor’s certificate or a statutory declaration each time they take sick leave, even for as little as one day’s absence. Obtaining a doctor’s certificate is difficult for cleaners because most are not entitled to Medicare due to their visa status and must pay $80 to see a doctor. $80 is approximately the amount a cleaner earns after tax for a typical 4-hour shift. Statutory declarations require being witnessed by a Justices of the Peace, but many have suspended their services due to COVID-19, and for any locations that may remain open, it is a public health risk for a sick employee to be travelling to access such a service. For many cleaners, it is simply not worth it and even if they have cold or flu symptoms, many will come to work so as not to miss out on this vital income.

Sick leave practices during COVID-19

During COVID-19, following CAF’s intervention to improve access to sick leave through the certification scheme over the past year, the vast majority of cleaners (84%) working at CAF-certified buildings report that they are able to take paid sick leave when they need to. Of those who said they cannot, we expect that most are casuals and do not have a paid sick leave entitlement. 

For casual cleaners and for those working in the broader industry where these actions have not been undertaken through the supply chain, access to paid sick leave is a critical issue at the intersection of labour rights and public health that must be addressed. 

What could happen if this isn’t addressed?

If damaging leave practices in the cleaning industry are not addressed and cleaners are not encouraged to stay home when they are sick, there is a very real risk of spikes in COVID-19 contractions as people come back into workplaces and public spaces that are cleaned by sick workers. It would be easy for office buildings and shopping centres to become outbreak sites similar to what happened at residential aged care facilities such as Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge and at the meat processing facility Cedar Meats. Ultimately, not providing cleaners their full sick and carer’s leave entitlements could set Australia back in its recovery.

What can be done to prevent this?

There are several actions that cleaning contractors and procurers of cleaning services can take to encourage cleaners to take sick leave when needed and reduce the risk to the community:

  • Relaxing evidentiary requirements for single days of sick leave.
  • Properly budgeting for on-costs by, at minimum, allocating 3.85% of wages as a sick leave to ensure that you are paying for cleaners’ full sick leave entitlement (10 days per year). However, best practice is to allocate more, for example 5% of wages for sick leave, with the expectation cleaners who need to take additional paid leave are able to (for instance if they or a household member have to quarantine).
  • Employer communication: Engage with cleaners to educate them on sick leave policy and their entitlements. Contractors at CAF certified buildings can meet with the nominated CAF Representative to discuss.
  • Ensure that personal leave policies and their implementation do not create unreasonable barriers to accessing paid leave.
  • For stakeholders in CAF certified buildings, check in with the cleaners’ CAF Representatives on a regular basis, using the ongoing compliance checklist questions to monitor cleaners’ working conditions, including their access to sick leave.

Stay up to date with the latest COVID-19 information for the cleaning industry or contact CAF to find out more about building certification.

Cleaning Accountability Framework Ltd.