In recent weeks, fuel distribution and fuel retail businesses have consistently reported concern about the rising proportion of staff being removed from the available staff pool lost to COVID – in terms of being both physically infected and as a result of being required to isolate for 7 days as a ‘close contact’ of someone who contracted COVID in their household.

These reports suggested that the rate of loss of workers to fuel retail and fuel distribution businesses was on the rise in the wake of dramatically increased rates of COVID contagion relating to the Omicron variant. Further, the shortages in the retail sector were occurring at a time when retail workforces were already weakened by the absence of visa workers (particularly, international students) created by the 20-month closure of Australia’s international borders.

“While ACAPMA had been advocating to government to remove the 40-hour fortnight cap imposed on international students, we were concerned about reports of an increase rate of workers being furloughed in fuel distribution and fuel retail businesses as a result of the Omicron variant” said ACAPMA CEO Mark McKenzie.

“Of most concern, were reports that some businesses were losing two staff to isolation as close contacts for every one staff member who actually contracted COVID” said Mark.

While most businesses were keeping their businesses open in the face of these worker losses via overtime and/or reducing opening hours, it was clear that there was a need to act now to avoid serious supply chain issues such as those previously seen in the UK.

“Our key challenge, however, was to articulate the urgency of the need to put measures in place for our industry now in order to protect supply chain operation, without unduly alarming the broader community and creating panic” said Mark.

“Rather than focussing on the problem and who was responsible for it, we chose to focus on a discussion of the steps we believed should be put in place to greatly reduce the risk of any serious interruption to supply chain operation” said Mark.

At a government-Industry meeting on Tuesday night that included the CEOs of a raft of national industry bodies (including AACS), ACAPMA suggested that the risk of supply chain problems in the fuel industry could be reduced by the simultaneous pursuit of three actions, namely:

  • Reducing the isolation requirements for close contacts such that they could return to work if they test negative and have no symptoms of illness, which meant treating fuel retail – which was previously excluded from the recent Critical Industry Guidelines exempting certain industries from 7-day isolation of close contacts – as part of the supply chain, and
  • Removing the 40-hour fortnight cap on international visa students hours and those with bridging visas, and
  • Removing the disincentives for older workers (i.e. Over 65-year-old workers) by reducing tax disincentives and increasing access to workers compensation for this cohort.

The morning after the meeting, the national newspapers carried select stories about the fact that the meeting occurred and that ACAPMA, as the national representative body for fuel distributors and fuel retailers, had attended.

“News of our attendance sparked a stream of media inquiry about whether we were about to enter a fuel crisis. We managed these issues carefully by stating that while there were some challenges now, there were a series of steps that could be taken to avert a large-scale issue with access to fuel in the country”, added Mark.

“Long story short, the National Cabinet meeting of yesterday (Thursday 13 January 2022) saw fit to expand reduced isolation requirements to a raft of ‘critical’ or ‘essential’ industries. These changes were agreed by the National Cabinet and will take effect once each State and Territory Government has put the necessary regulations in place. The changes are expected to take effect in all Australian States and Territories on Tuesday 18 January 2022”, continued Mark.

“Specifically, National Cabinet saw fit to relax the isolation rules for fuel distribution and wholesale businesses as well as fuel retail businesses”, said Mark.

“In addition, the Prime Minister announced that workers on an international student visa would be able to work up to 80 hours a fortnight – up from the previous 40-hour cap – until further notice”, added Mark.

Given that the issue of incentivising older workers to return to work (if they want to) involves some legislative changes that can’t be implemented quickly. This option has therefore been taken away for further consideration.

“The resolutions of the National Cabinet are very welcome. Notwithstanding the issue of access to supply of RAT, which we expect to be solved soon, these changes put our industry in the strongest possible position to ensure that the fuel industry supports the Australian community through the current outbreak”, said Mark.

Perhaps of most concern, however, are statements by the ACTU and other unions that they believe the changes will decrease worker safety in terms of contracting COVID. It is understood that the unions are meeting on Monday to consider their ‘next step’.

It is worth noting that our industry, particularly the national service station network, has stayed open throughout the COVID pandemic. While there have been cases where a COVID infected person has walked into a service station store and forced site cleaning, the strong use of masks and screens, sanitisation and distancing practices have meant that the level of person-to-person transmission at a service station site has been negligible.

“We are confident that the utilisation of these protocols strikes a good balance between minimising the risk to workers while simultaneously ensure that fuel remains available to critical industries, emergency services, businesses and Australian motorists”, said Mark.

All in all, the Omicron variant is creating significant challenges for all of us, but with the changes made by the government and the goodwill of employee representatives and fuel businesses, the job of continuing supply fuel to Australian society will be just that bit easier.

ACAPMA Members were notified of the announcements yesterday as the Prime Minister was speaking via the COVID Roundup, and further detail will and resources will continue to be provided to Members as the announcements are adopted at a State and Territory level.

ACAPMA Members are, as always, reminded to reach out to with any questions.