Danger at work: tracking the multi-layered risks of being a casual worker during COVID-19

The dangers of reliance on a casualised workforce have been cruelly exposed by the pandemic. The second of our INGSA inequality case studies looks at the particular challenges faced by casual workers in Australia

Catherine M Bennett and Ekaterina Bogatyreva

Casual workers have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in a multitude of ways. Hospitality workers were laid off as countries moved in and out of lockdown and businesses downsized under financial pressure, with casual workers often the first to go. Meanwhile, some casual work was central to the pandemic effort (cleaners, health and aged care workers) or expanded as a result of COVID-19 (quarantine workers).

In Australia, casual work was a driver of transmission dynamics in the second wave of COVID-19 (10 June-20 Oct 2020) because of widespread exposure to multiple workplaces. The nature of casual work, which is not unique to Australia, made this group of workers both more exposed to infection and more likely to infect others.

COVID-19’s ‘casual’ transmission networks

While most countries, including Australia, have statutory paid sick-leave for standard (permanent/long-term) employment, casual work typically has limited or no access to this and other benefits such as carers’ leave. It also offers less or no guarantee of continuous employment, is more often less well paid, and seldom guarantees a minimum number of hours, let alone full-time engagement. Around 20-24% of the Australian workforce is casually employed, with large numbers in the hospitality and retail industries, but also in public services such as aged care and healthcare (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020; Australian Industry Group, 2018).

Compared with other services that have maintained on-site work during the pandemic, healthcare staff are more likely to have more than one job (see Figure 1), while their insecure employment makes them less likely to test and isolate if they are sick or have been in contact with an infected individual (Möhner & Wolik, 2020; Purtill, 2020). Casual workers who need to work with multiple employers to sustain a living are therefore at increased risk both of becoming infected and of passing the virus on.

Figure 1: Secondary jobs in Australia by industry, seasonally adjusted

Total and secondary jobs chart

Transmission networks are created across multiple workplaces and connected via households. In the course of their working week, casual workers are more exposed to the virus via multiple high-risk workplaces, while ready-made transmission routes across their workplaces and households drive COVID-19, amplifying case numbers and population and geographic spread. Transmission control is further hampered if there are systemic challenges to upskilling a workforce in response to escalated infection risk, and disincentives to being tested for infection.

The high demand for health workers also increases pressure to stay working, while high staff turnover creates challenges to providing sufficient infectious control training and fostering a responsive work environment and team cohesion. The risk of onward transmission further increases with increased travel between jobs, use of public transport, and larger, more densely populated households (GOV.UK, Feb 2021).

Additional risks faced by casual workers

In response to the pandemic, lockdowns and restrictions were imposed around the world, encouraging or forcing people to work from home. However, essential work continued even in the strictest of lockdowns. Casual workers who were caught up in an outbreak investigation or who had become symptomatic faced additional risks compared with permanent/long-term employees – losing income in order to test and quarantine pending their result, or while isolating as a close contact of a case or as a case themselves.

The combined risk factors of infection and transmission for casual employees who cannot work from home are further exacerbated by the settings of their work and the nature of their employment, as listed in the table below.

Table 1: Infection and transmission factors for casual employees who cannot work from home

Environmental workplace factors
  • Lack of PPE or training in how to use this
  • Close contact with infectious cases (patients)
  • Inability to maintain social distancing
Workplace culture
  • Weak teamwork and infection control culture due to high casual staff turnover
  • Pressure from superiors
  • Work instability
  • Loose contract or work agreements
Inter-workplace factors
  • Transport to/from work
  • Number of positions held for supplementary income
Factors outside the workplace
  • Socioeconomic inequalities
  • Household size and density
  • Financial barriers to isolation

Aged care is an important example because of the vulnerability of those being cared for. Approximately 12% of Australia’s casual workforce is employed within the healthcare industry, and more than 30% of carers and aides within the industry are casually employed (Commonwealth Parliament, 2018), resulting in tragic losses during the pandemic. In the state of Victoria, 33% of the 1,991 aged care residents who contracted COVID-19 died (DOH, June 2021). Hotel quarantine workers also shared a number of the same risks, especially in the early days of operation.

Policy responses

It is difficult to disentangle the impacts of all the factors listed above in terms of their precise contribution to infection, transmission and death. However, Australia’s reliance on a casualised workforce is an area of vulnerability that has been exposed by COVID-19. For example, aged care was at the centre of our second wave, with outbreaks in some facilities lasting the entire three months of lockdown (Ting et al, June 2021).

To encourage casual staff to test for COVID-19 and isolate, Australian policymakers put in place certain short-term provisions (see below). But for those who have no fixed contract arrangements, payments covering lost income as a result of getting tested or self-quarantining still did not ensure job security. Therefore, financial incentives alone are not sufficient, and were short-lived in practice – although they were later reinstated in a reduced form during an extended ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown. Concerns about the vulnerability of casual workers remain among healthcare workers and across numerous other industries.

Selected policy interventions to support casual workers in Australia

22 Mar 2020: Income support payments expanded to include sole traders, the self-employed, casual workers and contract workers who met the income tests. Payment waiting times removed.

23 July 2020: $450 Coronavirus Test Isolation Payment introduced, available for anyone who could prove their identity, working rights and job status in Australia; $1,500 Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment for Victoria residents who tested positive.

25 Sept 2020: $250 per fortnight Coronavirus Supplement for sole traders, the self-employed, casual workers and contract workers who met the income tests (until 31 Dec 2020; $150/fortnight to 31 Mar 2021)

28 Sept 2020: $1,500/fortnight JobKeeper payment for eligible employees (including long-term casual) if employed for more than 12 months at the same workplace (until 28 Mar 2021).

About the authors

Professor Catherine Bennett is Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University, Australia; Ekaterina Bogatyreva is a research assistant in Deakin University’s School of Health and Social Development.