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SA Health wounded in union fight


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A major union has won yet another round in an ongoing battle with SA Health that’s reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars for its members.

Health officials show no sign of backing down despite losing case after case where the union has claimed its members were underpaid due to incorrect classifications.

In the latest case, four country-based hospital workers picked up an estimated $165,000 in back pay relating to six years of underpayment.

Previous cases dating back as far as 2004 have had similar results, with one worker being paid $76,000.

The average underpayment has been around $20,000.

The Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) has been able to use its success in winning the claims as a recruiting tool to boost its membership among trades and maintenance workers in the public hospital system.

“It’s an absolute disgrace how SA Health treat tradespeople,” CEPU organiser Simon Pisoni told InDaily.

“Our push has been simple; get people’s actual skills recognised and then get those people paid what they deserve based on those skills.

The class of workers involved are mainly maintenance and handyperson workers.

Pisoni said the union’s battle with SA Health started 10 years ago.

“We had an organiser who started asking why tradies in Health were paid under an award that classified them as no more than a handyman.

“He thought the skills they had and the work they were doing and the level of supervision etc meant that they should be on a higher classification or under a different award altogether.

“The difference in pay at the time was around $6000 a year which is a lot to lower paid workers.

“Health’s response was that they didn’t have the budget to make the higher level of payment.

“That issue was focused around metropolitan hospitals and resulted in the test case of Steven Comaccio and Dean Vickery-Howe, in late 2009.

“We won the case clearly.”

Comaccio worked at Lyell McEwin Hospital.

The union contended that he and his co-workers were classified as handypersons when they should have been classified as trades assistants.

After detailed assessments of what duties were carried out by Comaccio and his fellow workers, Industrial Magistrate Steven Lieschke concluded that “the applicants were primarily employed to support tradespeople in performing plumbing, metal trades and building work as defined by the respective awards”.

“In conclusion I find that both applicants were incorrectly classified as ‘handypersons’ … they should be recognised as working in trades assistant roles just below a tradesperson level.”

The decision was applied to the previous six years pay, the maximum period allowed under such claims.

CEPU officials then asked SA Health to apply the decision to similar workers in country hospitals, but the State Government remained intransigent.

“So we started again,” Pisoni said.

“I did a country tour and spoke to people in hospital maintenance departments and found that in the country situation the problem was even more obvious.

“They were doing absolutely everything; the plumbing of showers and bathrooms, doing doorways, building front counters, carpentry and electrical work.

“We started in the Riverland and explained to the maintenance workers that they were being grossly underpaid and that if they joined the union we would pursue their claim.

“One by one they joined and one by one we had them re-classified after going through a conciliation process.

“That batch was concluded in 2012 and involved about 15 workers.

“Then we went to the Mid-North and we had to take their cases all the way to a hearing and we won that.

“This time it was another seven workers.

“Next was the Eyre Peninsula and over there we had some huge wins, including the guy that got $76,000.

“It gives you an indication of how grossly underpaid they were.”

By this time another union organiser had taken over the country issue. Paul Scudds pushed the case that resulted in the union’s most recent Industrial Court win – the cases of Gary McGrath, Todd Page, Lyndon Gillings and Dean Haniford, decided this month.

Page and McGrath worked at the Port Lincoln Hospital, Gillings at Cleve and Haniford at the Cowell Hospital.

McGrath claimed three years’ backpay, while the other three each claimed six years’ worth.

And once again, SA Health was on the wrong end of the argument.

Again, it was the decision of Industrial Magistrate Leischke: “I have concluded that each applicant’s employment has been incorrectly classified as OPS-2, and that each applicant should have been classified at least as OPS-3 when first engaged to perform this work.”

The pay gap of around $7,500 for each year means the four workers can expect to share $165,000 plus interest.

InDaily asked the legal team acting for the State Government what their next step would be.

“We’ll continue to negotiate,” a spokeswoman for EMA Legal said.

For the union officials, it’s been a mix of sweet success and ongoing frustration.

“Why make it so difficult?” Pisoni said.

“This latest decision is a sign to Health that they need to be more reasonable.

“We’d rather negotiate an outcome than go through all these time and money-consuming court actions. It’s been tough – a most frustrating experience.

“It’s amazing how this process has been made so difficult.

“We’ll keep going until people get paid according to their skills and the employer’s expectations of them.”

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