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'Absolute hypocrisy': Health unions slam Govt over compo changes


Key health care sectors have joined a union backlash against the Malinauskas Government’s workers’ compensation overhaul, accusing the Premier of “short-sightedness” as he engages in a publicity blitz selling his health-heavy budget.

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Representatives from the Ambulance Employees Association, Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation and SA Salaried Medical Officers Association will join SA Unions in meeting with Attorney-General Kyam Maher tonight to express their anger at the Government’s proposed changes.

SA Salaried Medical Officers Association immediate past-president Dr David Pope, an emergency clinician at the Lyell McEwin Hospital, condemned the proposed overhaul of workers’ rights.

“It’s absolutely hypocritical and it undermines all the efforts going into recruitment,” Pope told InDaily.

“We need a Premier who’s out there spruiking the virtues of working for SA Health rather than undermining the rights and safety of workers in our healthcare system.”

The Labor Government has placed itself at loggerheads with the union movement in recent days, as several of its affiliated organisations declared “outrage” over a move to toughen the state’s compensation regime for injured workers in a bid to save businesses from punitive premiums.

The standoff has come months after the High Court rejected a Return To Work SA appeal against a decision in the case of injured truck driver Shane Summerfield, who was left permanently injured after a 2016 workplace accident.

Summerfield was granted additional compensation for complications from his original injuries, including an ongoing limp and back pain.

But Attorney-General Kyam Maher has sought to tighten the compensation regime to guard against future such cases – in the process igniting a potential war with the unions that backed the Government into office.

That now includes key health unions – which have fired up, as Peter Malinauskas courted publicity riding in the back of an ambulance on the weekend to see how medics dealt with the ramping crisis firsthand.

Ambulance Employees Association state secretary Leah Watkins told InDaily this morning the proposed changes represent “a significant disadvantage to ambos of South Australia”.

“Our ambulance workforce is over-represented in injury statistics,” she said.

“The ambulance workforce makes up four per cent of the total health workforce, however our injury rate represents 24 per cent of body stress injuries across SA Health.

“The potential impact of this is significant in terms of the numbers of ambos that would be affected and to the extent that those individuals would be affected.

“Several of our ambos suffer career-ending injuries… but then to be financially penalised and not be able to provide for your family in the way that you previously could is devastating – it’s insult to injury.”

Watkins accused the Government of “short-sightedness” and said the proposed changes “undermine” the support and investment it is making in health.

“What a compromised position that our ambos find themselves in where on the one hand we have the single biggest investment into the ambulance service in our history, a significant investment into the health system but on the other hand they are proposing this change that would financially cripple our most vulnerable injured workers,” she said.

“It’s quite the dichotomy that we sit here with now and that’s really hard to reconcile.

“It’s short-sightedness that (Malinauskas) can’t see the dichotomy that this puts particularly ambo workers in.

“We wanted the opportunity for our members to be able to celebrate the massive achievement of the Labor Party being elected and then following through on their commitment and putting in the budget all of the commitments they have made prior to the election and it feels like we can’t do that now.

“It’s a real shame that we can’t just be happy with that for a week, a month, before we’re back in the throes of urgently needing to debate issues with the Government, consider proposals by the Government that would disadvatange the very workers that they have supported, that they have backed.

“They have been backing them but then this proposal undermines that.”

Her comments follows a weekend social media post by the union declaring it and its members “oppose the Labor Government’s proposed amendments to the Return to Work legislation”.

“We need the government to understand the effect this would have on ambos across South Australia,” the union said.

“They put their bodies on the line every day, and their injury rate is incredibly high – psychological and physical.

“For those unlucky enough to be injured on the job, we need to ensure they’ll be protected and looked after.

“We will be seeking to meet with the Labor Government to discuss alternatives to the current amendments.

“An injury to one is an injury to all.”

It’s understood Malinauskas met with the union’s executive on Friday to account for his planned changes, in what was an uncomfortable exchange of views.

Nurses have also weighed in, with SA’s Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation also posting to social media that it has “joined other unions in condemning the State Government’s decision to toughen legislation over injured workers’ compensation without appropriate consultation”.

“The proposed legislation aims to nullify the Supreme Court and High Court decisions related to the compensation of injured truck driver Shane Summerfield,” it said.

“The ANMF believes it is incredibly remiss of the Government to push through amendments where the legislation is highly technical and has the potential to impact on the entitlements of thousands of injured workers.”

The union wants a review of return-to-work laws “and the overall workers compensation scheme… to ensure it is restored to its fundamental objectives of restoration, rehabilitation, and compensation for injured workers”.

Union state secretary Elizabeth Dabars told InDaily “we are very upset”.

“We don’t think it’s reasonable for workers to be even further disadvantaged than they already are under the workers’ compensation scheme,” she said.

“We’re advocating for a review and reform of the law to in fact improve it rather than to worsen it.”

Dabars said she was “sympathetic” to concerns that without changes, businesses’ premiums could be pushed up.

“We want businesses to be able to thrive and prosper in South Australia and we do think there can and should be a better way and that’s why we think a review of the law is required,” she said.

“We understand in Queensland that their scheme is fully funded, that the premium is not in excess and the scheme operates quite well for both employers and employees alike. That is the type of thing we would think would be far better to look at.”

Dabars also said nurses want “far more investment and attention given to injury avoidance and prevention which would actually… bring the premiums down by preventing workplace injuries which would be a fantastic result for everyone”.

Asked about the timing and lack of consultation on the changes, following union support for Labor during the election campaign, Dabars said “we’ve been really disappointed to say the least about the way that this has been handled”.

“We have absolutely not been aware of their intention to put this through and given their stated intentions and behaviour to date has been very cooperative, very collaborative and very positive, it really has been a blindside and a great disappointment for them to have conducted themselves in this way,” she said.

“We’ve expressed that directly to the Premier and the Attorney-General because it is deeply disappointing. We are grown adults, we think these conversations can and should be had.”

Asked whether it was hypocritical of the Premier for his government to attempt to make these law changes at the same time as he rides in the back of an ambulance with paramedics and supports healthcare workers in his budget, Dabars said: “What they are doing in the health space is very positive but I do think that this cuts against the grain.”

“I have put directly to the Premier that I believe it cuts directly against their values and we would like to see a more positive discussion and review and reform of the law that makes sure that workers are protected, that injuries are avoided and that employers’ premiums are kept down by injury avoidance and by also having a system that supports workers,” she said.

InDaily has asked Attorney-General Kyam Maher for a response.

An Opposition spokesperson said: “The Opposition Leader will meet with unions to discuss their concerns over changes to the Return to Work legislation, with the aim of coming to a balanced position that works for both businesses and stakeholders.”

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