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City council to face Employment Tribunal over COVID-19 response

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The Adelaide City Council’s executive will face the employment tribunal over union claims it reached “a new low in employer/employee relations” by asking staff to take annual leave due to the impact of coronavirus.

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In a joint statement last night, the Australian Workers and Services Unions said the city council breached employment law and was “out of step” with other local governments by forcing staff to stop work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The matter is listed to appear before the state’s Employment Tribunal on Monday.

InDaily revealed last Thursday that about half the council’s current workforce – up to 400 people – had been asked to stop work for one month, with only “essential staff with critical functions” to be kept working.

In an email sent to staff, Adelaide City Council CEO Mark Goldstone said permanent employees would be paid at their usual rate for the first two weeks, with staff asked to take annual leave for the remainder of the month-long break.

If staff did not have sufficient annual leave they were asked to “notify their leader”.

The staffing changes mean essential services such as planning, waste management and the customer centre have continued “but with a reduced capacity”.

Goldstone said last week that 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, due to limitations with the council’s IT system.

This council has determined to cut costs and jeopardise public safety in its amateurish response to the latest crisis

But the unions claim the council failed to investigate how staff could work from home or perform other essential tasks to ensure they did not have to take leave.

“The Australian Workers Union believes the actions of Adelaide City Council last Wednesday in unilaterally and without notice forcing workers to take leave as a new low in employer/employee relations,” Australian Workers Union state branch secretary Peter Lamps said.

“At a time when services need to be maintained for the benefit of not just the community but for public safety this council has determined to cut costs and jeopardise public safety in its amateurish response to the latest crisis.”

Australian Services Union state branch secretary Abbie Spencer added that the council should “mirror the flexibility and innovation” of other councils across the state to ensure “important work that can be done while council upgrades IT systems to allow more staff to work from home”.

I don’t believe my decision is either unreasonable in these extraordinary circumstances nor unlawful

InDaily asked Goldstone this morning if staff would be forced to take leave without pay if they did not have sufficient annual leave to cover the second two weeks of the break.

He responded that the council was “working with those individuals” on a “case by case basis to determine the most appropriate alternative”.

 ASU assistant secretary Scott Cowen said the council had not responded to similar questions from the union, prompting its decision to take the matter to the Employment Tribunal.

“The council hasn’t given any undertaking as to what staff would be asked to do if they do not have sufficient annual leave,” he said.

“This is a live concern for the council and one for many (union) members.”

In a statement, Goldstone stood by the executive’s decision, saying it was made in accordance with the Work Health and Safety Act.

“Workplace health and safety is my first and most important duty as a CEO, where the wellbeing of staff are concerned,” he said.

“There is a hierarchy of actions we can and must take to reduce the risks to our staff.

“We have been and continue to take those actions.”

Goldstone said retaining the entire workforce in place during the coronavirus pandemic “would have significantly increased the risk of infection”, putting both staff and the community at “increased risk”.

“I don’t believe my decision is either unreasonable in these extraordinary circumstances nor unlawful,” he said.

“We are, however, open to exploring all reasonable viable alternatives and have invited our unions to share their suggestions with us.”

The CEO added that keeping staff at home for one month gave the council time to increase its technical capacity to have people work from home.

The council last month 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.

Local Government Minister Stephan Knoll last week said he would consider legal options to keep council workers working following the Adelaide City Council’s decision.

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