March 18, 2020 / 11:53 PM / 20 days ago

Qantas seeks to redeploy staff at Woolworths as coronavirus bites

SYDNEY, March 19 (Reuters) - Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd is in talks with grocer Woolworths Group Ltd about redeploying some of its workers as coronavirus-hit financial markets brace for expected intervention by the country’s central bank on Thursday.

The flagship airline said it was temporarily laying off 20,000 employees, about two thirds of its workforce, as it suspended all international flights and slashed domestic services by almost two thirds.

Qantas, like other airlines around the world, has been severely impacted as several countries have closed national borders to try halt the spread of the coronavirus epidemic.

“Sadly there’s no work for most of our people,” Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce said, adding the layoffs would last until at least the end of May. “They will maintain their jobs and they will have an opportunity to come back to Qantas.”

Supermarkets, however, have been contending with an influx of shoppers as people, wary that Australia will follow other countries by imposing movement restrictions on its citizens, rush to purchase goods. Supermarket shelves are stripped daily of essentials, including milk, pasta, toilet paper and meat.

Joyce said Brad Banducci, the chief executive of Woolworths, the country’s No.1 grocer, contacted him earlier in the week about the possibility of a staff secondment. Woolworths and Qantas are partners in the airline’s Frequent Flyer program.

“With all of the demand in supermarkets right now it is a good opportunity for our people,” Joyce told reporters.

Woolworths Chief People Officer Caryn Katsikogianis said in a statement the company was setting up a “streamlined expression of interest process” for Qantas staff and would “be looking to offer as many flexible contract and casual roles as we can.”

No. 2 grocery operator Coles Ltd said last week it wanted to hire 5,000 people to stack shelves.

Economists around the world have warned of a surge in unemployment as businesses from airlines to restaurants to sports clubs close due to measures intended to stop the spread of the flu-like illness that has so far infected nearly 600 Australians and led to six deaths.

RBA ACTION

The Reserve Bank of Australia is scheduled to make a monetary policy announcement at 2:30 p.m. (0330 GMT), with economists expecting an out-of-session interest rate cut and the bank’s first ever quantitative easing programme.

The government on Wednesday declared a “human biosecurity emergency”, effectively banning all international travel, limiting indoor gatherings to 100 people and restricting entry to aged care facilities. It is also considering extending a A$17.6 billion stimulus package.

The small island state of Tasmania on Thursday imposed its own state of emergency, ordering people who arrive from mainland Australia to self-isolate for 14 days.

Small Pacific islands, meanwhile, have reported eight confirmed cases of the virus: French Polynesia, Guam and New Caledonia. Most of the island nations, however, do not have the ability to screen for the virus, raising concerns its spread in the region is being masked.

Reporting by Byron Kaye, Jonathan Barrett and Renju Jose in SYDNEY; editing by Jane Wardell

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