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City council staff forced to stop work amid COVID-19 fallout

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Hundreds of Adelaide City Council staff have been told not to work for one month, with the CEO warning some services will be scaled back or axed due to the impact of coronavirus.

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In a statement to InDaily, the council’s CEO Mark Goldstone said Town Hall’s indoor workforce was told yesterday not to come to work for the near future, while its outdoor workforce and “public realm” team has been given until the end of tomorrow to stop work for four weeks.

 Only “essential staff with critical functions” will work over the next month.

A council spokesperson was unable to say how many workers are affected, but multiple sources told InDaily about half the council’s current workforce – up to 400 people – would stop work.

In an email to staff yesterday – seen by InDaily – Goldstone said permanent employees would be paid at their usual rate for the first two weeks of the month-long break.

“For the second two-week period, those with leave available will be required to take annual leave,” he wrote

“If they do not have sufficient annual leave, they will be asked to notify their leader within the next 24 hours.” 

Goldstone said this morning that the staffing changes meant essential services such as planning, waste management and the customer centre would continue “but with a reduced capacity”.  

“We will endeavour to minimise the impact this has on our community but inevitably there will be reduced levels of service, and there will be some non-essential services that we will not focus on in the next four weeks,” he said.

“We will ensure our website contains the most recent updates (including about service delivery) and we will continue to communicate via our social media channels.”

The CEO said the council was “no longer in a position to facilitate the appropriate social distancing and provide a safe working environment” for staff to continue working as they normally would, or for services to operate as usual.

“Unfortunately, we also do not have capacity for all our people to productively and meaningfully work from home simultaneously,” he said.

“Not all of our people can meaningfully work from home either.

“We will use this four-week period to build the capacity of our systems and technology to increase the number of people who can meaningfully and productively work from home, and plan for how to reactivate our people and our services in four weeks’ time.”

Affected staff have set automatic email messages informing those who contact them that “City of Adelaide will only deliver services that are critical for the health and wellbeing of our community for the next four weeks.

“During this period staff who are not required to deliver essential services will be taking leave. We look forward to resuming our contact once we come through this extraordinary situation.”

The Australian Services Union, which represents local government workers, met with the council’s executive this morning to discuss leave entitlements for affected staff.

The union’s state branch secretary Abbie Spencer told InDaily after the meeting that the city council had “gone it alone in closing council services and standing down staff”.

“The council’s approach is out of step with other public sector employers, and other major capital city councils interstate,” she said.

“City of Adelaide residents will expect council’s essential services to continue during this unprecedented pandemic.”

But Goldstone said the decision ensured the council could “protect the health of our staff and our community, while still providing our most critical services to the community”. 

“I recognise this is a very challenging time for our community,” he said.

“COVID-19 is having a significant impact on our lives but I am confident that the decisions made to date have been the right ones for our people and our community.

“I believe this decision is also the right one with the information we have at hand and allows us to fulfil our duty of care to our staff and our community while still providing the services they need.”

The total number of permanent and fixed-term full-time staff employed by the Adelaide City Council at June 30 last year was 846.

There were also 190 casual staff, 33 trainees and apprentices, and 37 labour hire workers.

The order for staff not to work comes after the council on Monday night approved spending $4 million on a support package to help city businesses and residents cope with the economic and social impacts of COVID-19.

Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor said in a media release announcing the package that it would have a “significant impact” on the council’s budget, which is set to breach debt ceilings by early next year.

The council last week temporarily closed a number of its public facilities, including the Adelaide Aquatic Centre, city libraries, community centres and Town Hall in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The decision on staff was made by the council’s executive, not elected members.

Spencer said the ASU was “ready and willing” to work with the city council and Local Government Association on a “sector-wide approach that ensures essential local government services continue to be provided, staff continue to be paid for their work and councils do their bit to reduce the spread of COVID-19”.

“The ASU recognises this is an extremely challenging time for councils. It is not business as usual,” she said.

“We have written to every council in SA assuring them that the ASU wants to work with them to find ways to keep as many people as possible in work.” 

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