Zana Bytheway realised in early March that the COVID-19 pandemic would cause dramatic changes to Australian workplaces. (Article published on Victoria Legal Aid the 18 June 2020))

As the Executive Director of the specialist employment rights community legal centre, JobWatch, Zana and her team have had a direct insight into the impact of the pandemic on Australian workers, but also the collaborative response from the legal assistance sector.

'This has been a double-edged sword, because people are really nervous about their health, and they're also concerned about their livelihood.'
Zana Bytheway, Executive Director, JobWatch

'In my long career as a lawyer, never has it been more critical to get information out very quickly,' said Zana.

Together with Victoria Legal Aid, JobWatch has provided crucial information to tens of thousands of people about their employment rights during the pandemic.

The initial response

JobWatch runs a free and confidential telephone information service for employees in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland, with the help of student interns and volunteers so, in mid-March, the agency's first challenge was moving that operation to working from home.

'That has been one of the highlights in this strange time -- the understanding that we can do this and do it so quickly,' said Zana.

The next challenge was meeting the community's need for information at a time when circumstances were rapidly changing.

'The demand was just incredible,' said Zana.

'People were desperate to get to the phone service, which provides tailored assistance about employment issues but the level of demand meant many couldn't get through, so we had to consider new ways of providing them with pertinent information.'
Zana Bytheway, Executive Director, JobWatch

Using data and information tracked through the phone service, JobWatch created online resources to answer the most common questions including queries about the Jobkeeper scheme such as payment and directions from employers, health and safety concerns, and discrimination.

'In April this year, we had about 54,000 page views on our website, compared to 8000 in April last year,' said Zana.

Collaborating with the community

At Victoria Legal Aid, the volume of calls about COVID-19 into the Legal Help line helped the community legal education (CLE) team to understand the importance of quickly providing new information for the community.

Program Manager of CLE, Monica Ferrari says the JobWatch resources were very comprehensive, reflecting the expertise of the centre.

'We felt we could add value to the content by restructuring and simplifying it to extend its reach,' said Monica.

'We spoke with JobWatch about this idea and, with their support, developed six plain language webpages. JobWatch provided a legal review and linked to our content on their website. We acknowledged JobWatch and linked back to them so those who needed more help could access their services.'

'Collaborating to apply our complementary skills and streamline the process saves time and allows us to maximise the impact of legal information.'
Monica Ferrari, CLE Program Manager, Victoria Legal Aid

Zana says it is a mutually beneficial arrangement.

'It means that apart from the JobWatch website, there are other avenues for people to find vital information, and it has been incredible to watch VLA disseminate that information widely and efficiently,' said Zana.

'People are worried about their wellbeing and financial stability, so you have to get information to them very quickly.'

'When you're facing a crisis, if you have knowledge, you are empowered and have a better understanding of where you are and what choices you have.'
Zana Bytheway, Executive Director, JobWatch

The ongoing challenge

CLE Co-ordinator, Content Innovation, Andrea Staunton, says VLA's CLE program has a strong history of teaming up with CLCs to provide information and education to the community.

'In this time of crisis, we really appreciated JobWatch sharing their time and expertise to help us quickly develop complementary resources.

'We know the need for legal information in the community is high, and that will continue well beyond this pandemic. We look forward to working in partnership with CLCs to meet that challenge.'
Andrea Staunton, CLE Co-ordinator, Content Innovation, Victoria Legal Aid

As the COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, Zana is not expecting a drop-off in the need for new information about employment laws.

'Now that many staff are beginning to focus on returning to work, we have produced another set of resources around the health and safety concerns this might prompt,' said Zana.

Through it all, Zana is full of praise for her small team at JobWatch.

'My staff are resilient and hardworking, and as challenging as all this is, the rewarding aspect of it is being able to do something to help people.'