Countdown, Fletcher, Bunnings, Lion accused of 'exploiting workers' by not applying for COVID-19 Leave Support Scheme

Some of New Zealand's best-known brands are being grilled over their treatment of coronavirus-affected staff.

FIRST Union has accused Countdown, Fletcher Building, Bunnings and Lion of forcing employees to use sick and annual leave to self-isolate instead of applying for the Government's COVID-19 Leave Support Scheme (LSS).

In a scathing press release sent to media on Tuesday, it claimed the companies were "jeopardising the national pandemic response and exploiting their workers" by failing to apply for the scheme.

The LSS allows employers to pay staff who can't work because they are at high risk of catching COVID-19, have at-risk household members, are required to self-isolate for health or contact-tracing reasons or can't work from home.

"These companies are eligible for a leave scheme which specifically enables them to access Government money to pay workers who need to self-isolate or can't work… but many of them are refusing to apply for it," said Tali Williams, FIRST Union Secretary for Retail and Finance.

"It means people are being instructed to use up sick leave and, in some cases, forced to use their accrued annual leave to observe a required public health duty and do their part to protect colleagues, customers and their loved ones at home.

"Businesses like Countdown or Bunnings might not meet the reduced revenue threshold required to access the broader wage subsidy scheme, but they can and should apply for this LSS on behalf of employees who can't work according to public health advice."

All four of the companies name-checked by FIRST have refuted allegations of exploitation and jeopardising the country's COVID-19 response.

Bunnings NZ director Jacquie Coombes told Newshub it is now in the process of applying for the LSS, which it became eligible for last Friday when the Government removed its revenue test settings.

Lion NZ meanwhile said it wouldn't apply as it has no fixed limit on sick leave for its workforce - and even if it had, was yet to receive any leave requests from employees needing to self-isolate to comply with Government regulations.

Following FIRST Union's suggestion it was exploiting workers, Countdown spokesperson Kiri Hannifin told Newshub the company was "incredibly disappointed" by the claims, which she labelled "simply untrue".

She said Countdown didn't feel that applying for the LSS was necessary nor right, given the money was needed by other businesses and its stores hadn't seen a revenue hit as they'd been allowed to keep trading at every alert level.

Any Countdown staff required to self-isolate by the Ministry of Health would be given discretionary leave, while staff who are sick must instead use sick leave. Once sick staff had exhausted their leave entitlements, they would then be able to access discretionary leave.

Similarly, Fletcher Building said it had "very few people needing to self-isolate at this stage" and believed "the best way we can support our people is to work with them based on their individual circumstances".

In an email sent to FIRST and seen by Newshub, Fletcher told the union those who were unable to attend work due to sickness would have to use sick leave and other leave entitlements.

In the event the employee had used up all their leave, the business would discuss other arrangements, including leave in advance. Only in "exceptional circumstances" would the business consider paid leave. 

Jared Abbot, FIRST's Secretary for Transport, Logistics & Manufacturing, says the 'case by case' rationale put forward by Countdown and Fletcher is "double-speak" and "in no way means they are resolving every case or any case".

Colleague Williams said their approach is unfair, because some employees will be required to exhaust their sick or annual leave when they would be eligible for immediate paid discretionary leave via the LSS.

"If the company doesn't want to access the scheme that's fine, but certainly they should match what the Government's scheme would provide those workers, which would mean discretionary leave immediately rather than having to use up their own leave first."

Both Countdown and Fletcher say they are committed to the wellbeing of their employees and will work through issues as they present themselves.

Fletcher says it will review how it can best support staff and would consider applying for the LSS if it deems it the right approach.