Paul Zahra the chief executive officer of the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) has written a letter to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews explaining his concerns about “elevated customer aggression levels” in the state, and has called for improved consultation around vaccination protocols which have become “extremely challenging” for retailers to manage at short notice.
“Our members have reported thousands of incidences of customer aggression including many acts of significant violence towards retail staff – such as staff being beaten up, an instance of a boiling cup of coffee being thrown over a frontline worker and a shopping trolley being thrown at another,” says Paul Zahra the chief executive officer of the Australian Retailers Association (ARA).
“The reports of customer aggression are coming from a broad range of retailers – from department stores to hardware stores, along with small businesses and even charity shops, many of which have had to put security guards at their doors. The timing and the stop-start nature of the vaccine checking requirement, following freedoms experienced by unvaccinated Victorians, has been extremely challenging for retailers to manage,” continued Paul Zahra.
Paul Zahra noted that although customer aggression has remained a problem throughout the pandemic, the behaviour exhibited by customers during the past week reached peak levels, resulting in many retail staff becoming fearful to return to work.
“As you can appreciate, not only does this pose serious mental health risks, it also makes it extremely difficult for retailers to operate during the busiest shopping season of the year. The current skills crisis has already seen many retail and hospitality outlets close due to lack of available staff. This, coupled with the enormous pressure retailers are already under due to supply chain issues and the intensity of Christmas and Black Friday trade, it is creating unprecedented levels of anxiety,” said Mr. Zahra.
Paul Zahra outlined that the Victorian Government has only been giving retailers across the state a few hours of notice in regards to their requirements to pivot their business focus on the immediate requirement for vaccine checking.
“For many retailers, this entailed recruitment or rostering of Covid marshalls for one or several entrances. Not only was this at great cost to retail, it also meant finding additional staff with limited preparation time. Retail rostering happens days and usually weeks in advance – in many instances required by law,” said Paul Zahra.
Paul Zahra says that the inclusion of children in the customer vaccination requirements was also a surprise move which was introduced without adequate communication, training materials or signage to assist staff and customers in navigating this change.
“Naturally customers were also taken by surprise with this new requirement. Retailers were further blindsided by the bringing forward of staff vaccination requirements from the previously legislated date of the 26th November 2021 for a second dose to 19th November 2021 – without any warning. There was the added complexity of the published public health orders contradicting each other around the required dates for staff vaccinations in ‘non-essential’ retail,” contend Mr. Zahra.
Paul Zahra explained larger retailers may have had the benefit of a lawyer to interpret these public health directions, but small businesses didn’t stand a chance navigating this confusing legislation the day it came into effect.
Workers Compensation Claims and Lawsuits Increase as Employees Catch Covid
Workers compensation claims and lawsuits are expected to increase as covid-19 restrictions ease and borders reopen, consequently leaving businesses open to be sued by staff if they get sick at work.
Since the beginning of the pandemic there has been approximately 3,000 Covid-19 related workers compensation claims.
Business owners across the country have been cautious as possible to protect their staff and customers. With some businesses even making staff sign declaration forms before each shift stating that they have no symptoms of covid-19 and that they haven’t been in contact with anyone who has tested positive to covid-19 in the past fortnight.
Some of business owners are deciding to voluntarily get tested for covid-19 once or twice to ensure the safety of their employees and customers and to furthermore protect themselves from legal action.
In Australia, employers hold a duty of care to maintain a safe workplace as far as is reasonably possible.
If an employee catches covid-19 at work they can make a claim for workers compensation under their state-based Work Cover schemes, which operates under a no-fault principle.
However, if a worker believed they had contracted covid-19 because their employer was at fault, either deliberately or through negligence, they may be able to sue their boss in court for damages.
In August 2021, the Personal Injury Commission of New South Wales ordered the NSW workers compensation insurer iCare to pay $834,200 to the widow of a man who became infected with covid-19 during a business trip to the US and later died from the disease.
NSW and Victoria are the two states that were hit the hardest by the pandemic have recorded the highest number of workers compensation claims related to covid-19.
In Victoria, the total cost of claims based on getting covid-19 at work so far is $7.2 million, and the future estimated cost of these claims sits at around $25.2 million. The cost of claims for other impacts of covid-19 like mental and physical injury is $16.6 million and the estimated future cost is $78 million. There have been three accepted claims of death.
New South Wales has paid out $7.8 million for covid-19 related workers compensation, with an expected gross cost of $15.6 million.
The highest number of claims in NSW have been in the industries of retail, public administration and safety, health care and social assistance, accommodation and food services and transport.
In NSW, the estimated cost of workers compensation claims by people infected by covid-19 is expected to soar to around $638 million in the 12 months after the state opens up, according to the State Insurance Regulatory Authority (SIRA).
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