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Unley Council prompts union concerns over coronavirus staffing

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Unley Council has become the second local government in South Australia to ask staff to take leave because of COVID-19, as a dispute between unions and the Adelaide City Council over a stop-work order plays out before the Employment Tribunal.

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The Australian Services Union said it is currently in negotiations with the Unley Council over a decision to ask permanent library, community centre and swimming pool staff to take leave in response to coronavirus-forced service closures.  

InDaily understands staff will temporarily stop work from this Thursday for an unknown period of time, with permanent employees to be paid at their usual rate for the first two weeks and asked to take annual or long-service leave thereafter.  

In a statement to InDaily, Unley Council CEO Peter Tsokas said forced closures of community facilities in accordance with Federal Government guidelines “have implications for staff that ordinarily provide those services”.

“City of Unley is committed to maintaining employment for its workforce and has not stood down any individual,” he said.

“We are committed to providing as many alternate roles as possible over the period of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Whilst identification of alternative work is being undertaken, affected staff are on leave.”

Tsokas did not respond to questions asking how many staff would be required to take leave and when they would return to work.

It comes as the Adelaide City Council executive fronted the Employment Tribunal yesterday morning over union claims it unlawfully ordered about 400 staff to stop work for one month.  

In an email sent to staff last month, 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” to find “the most appropriate alternative”. 

The Australian Workers and Services 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.

Australian Services Union SA senior campaigner Daniel Spencer said representatives would meet with the city council twice today for “detailed further discussions” before the matter reappears before the Tribunal on Thursday.

“We’re actively working with them to try and find a solution and obviously that’s ongoing,” he said.

Spencer said the union was also aware of two other regional South Australian councils that were considering asking staff to stop work, but negotiations were ongoing.

He said “most” councils in South Australia had implemented work from home arrangements or had given staff three weeks of special leave.

Local Government Minister Stephan Knoll said he spoke to all South Australian councils, including the Adelaide City Council, about two weeks ago to discuss how they would cope with the impacts of COVID-19.

He said “unnecessary” scaling down of services and operations would put more people out of work, “which is the last thing we need at this time”.

“Capital city councils across Australia are more severely impacted and we will work with Adelaide City Council wherever possible to continue to operate effectively,” he said.

“Councils should do everything possible to keep people employed and keep services operating as long as it is safe to do so within the current public health restraints.

“Councils need to show leadership and keep providing the critical functions and services that the community need in these unprecedented times.”

Federal Labor has estimated as many as 45,000 local government workers across Australia could be forced to stop work over the coming months as the double hit of community facility closures and expected rate deferrals smashes their budgets.

National Local Government Association president David O’Loughlin, who is also Prospect Mayor, has written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison to ask for council employees to be included in the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme.

“These immediate and impending impacts on revenue cannot be withstood whilst thousands of specialised employees from closed facilities remain on the payroll with no work and no financial assistance to retain them,” he said.

“The vast majority of councils do not have the financial reserves to provide for any further retention of casual or permanent staff associated with closed facilities where user charges have plummeted or expired.”

SA Local Government Association CEO Matt Pinnegar said councils employ 11,000 people across the state.

He said South Australian councils were “facing challenges” keeping some of those employees working while facilities such as swimming pools, sporting centres, galleries and tourism attractions remain closed.

-with AAP

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