Police (Return to Work) Amendment Bill

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 14 October 2015.)

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:18:12): I rise on behalf of the Greens today to make our contribution to the Police (Return to Work) Amendment Bill 2015, and indicate that the Greens will be supporting this bill. I will talk further to the amendments as they are moved.

We would like to thank the president, Mark Carroll, and the secretary, Tom Scheffler, from the Police Association of South Australia for meeting with me to discuss this important piece of legislation that we have before us. I was happy today, as well, to speak on the steps to a 1,000-plus strong crowd and I certainly commend Mark Carroll's powerful words. He puts a compelling argument and he certainly put a compelling argument to me in discussions of this bill that the Hon. Robert Brokenshire has brought before this chamber today.

The bill proposed by the Hon. Robert Brokenshire seeks to amend the Police Act 1998. The bill extends the payment period for income maintenance and medical treatment for police officers with no work capacity or with limited work capacity. Currently under the Return to Work Act an injured worker who has not been categorised as a seriously injured worker will have their weekly payments terminated after two years, and their medical payments will cease after three years.

The Greens raised our strong concerns during the debate last year and clearly stated then, as we do now, that we oppose this new definition of a seriously injured worker.

The Bill before us inserts a new schedule 1A into the Police Act, which allows injured police officers to receive ongoing payments for income maintenance and for medical treatment. The cases of injured police officers have played a significant role in increasing the community's understanding of this situation that injured workers are now finding themselves in when dealing with what is, we believe, a draconian piece of legislation.

It is incredibly powerful of police officer Alison Coad, Senior Constable Brian Edwards and Senior Constable Brett Gibbons to share their personal experiences. I commend them for their bravery and I note that the words today at the rally were that they do not want to be called brave: they simply want justice. Hopefully, we are here today to give them justice.

As members in this place are aware, police officer Alison Coad has been left permanently harmed with painful oral herpes—an incurable virus—after a spitting incident which occurred in Whitmore Square in 2003. Coad and her partner attended a potentially violent disturbance at Whitmore Square, when they spotted a knife-wielding man in a heated argument with a young woman. Coad and her partner faced aggression from the man and had to use pepper spray. I would like to quote the case from the Police Journal:

That sparked the woman into a rage against the police officers, who then had to spray and cuff her as well. But even cuffed and sitting upright on the ground , with her eyes watering and nose running, she continued to rant and swear at Coad. Still, Coad knelt down next to the woman and set about spraying her face with water to give her relief from the effects of the OC spray. The woman offered no thanks . I nstead, she suddenly and noisily hoi c ked up a " full-on ball of sputum " from deep in her throat, leaned forward and spat it directly at Coad.

No police officer should have to put up with this sort of act of assault. It was a tragic incident and one that a police officer should not have to face in their daily line of duty but, of course, they do. Coad, under this legislation, will have her weekly payments cease in two years' time, and medical payments terminated in three years—2018, just in time for the next state election, I do note.

One of the issues the Greens raised in this place when we debated the return-to-work legislation was just how unfair that 30 per cent whole person impairment threshold is, and how it is an unrealistic threshold imposed on injured workers. We raised at the time that WorkCover figures at that point in the debate indicated that, of the 1,070 workers with a whole person impairment in 2010-11, only 17 would be considered to be entitled to ongoing compensation.

In other words, less than 2 per cent would be eligible for ongoing compensation, and the rest of those injured workers would not be included in the new scheme. We argued that the vast majority of seriously injured workers under the government's new definition would not be deemed to be seriously injured despite the significance of their injuries. There has now been a lot of media coverage on the issue of police officers having those payments extended.

The Greens support the Bill before us in this chamber, but we indicate that we have been working with the unions and other stakeholders and we will seek to move amendments to the Return to Work Act. I would like to take this opportunity now to talk about the impact that the Return to Work Act has had on all workers, many of whom have contacted my office. A police officer who also volunteers with the SA Ambulance Service has asked me to share his case and so I read out the letter now that he sent to my office:

For the purpose of this debate I would like to be kept anonymous. However, I would like to share my story as both a Police Officer and an Ambulance officer and the risks that I face in both my roles.

I graduated from the South Australian Police Academy in June 2014, and was permanently appointed as a South Australian Police Officer in November this year.

In that time I have been fortunate in terms of not having suffered any serious injury while at work and have only had to use a 'tactical option' (capsicum spray, baton, etc.) on one occasion, when a number of teenagers who were under the influence of alcohol punched the windscreen of our police car and then tried to punch me as well.

As a Police officer, I have had near misses when on one occasion while assisting a young female who suffered a mental illness and needed to be brought to the hospital after she suffered cuts to her wrist. The young woman then tried to punch me in the face, which I only just narrowly missed. Whilst in my role as a police officer, I have witnessed and have been called to several incidents where hospital staff, ambulance staff have felt threatened or felt in danger in some way.

I have also been volunteering as an Ambulance Officer within the SA Ambulance Service since 2013. In this time I have attended a number of calls made to assist people with a mental health related illness, as well as people with communicable diseases or drug habits.

In this time I have again been very lucky in not having experienced an incident where I have been assaulted or injured, but I have had a male in the back of the ambulance threaten to urinate on me if I did not let him out of the ambulance. This male was given assistance by the Ambulance officer after he threatened to commit suicide. It was only when the police, who were in the ambulance with me on this occasion, stepped in and prevented this male from continuing to remove his pants that prevented him from doing so.

Fortunately, I have not been injured while on duty. I have heard so many scenarios of unsafe conditions from my colleagues about the risks involved in our jobs. I can say that ambulance officers do not have capsicum spray or a baton to carry whilst on duty.

I am worried that if I was to be injured as an ambulance officer, I won't be able to meet the 'seriously injured' definition. I am also concerned for my colleagues who are ambulance officers, who I know suffer a serious injury and are about to get cut off their weekly payments. I hope my experiences can help members of parliament understand the risk of injury we are likely to incur in our daily jobs.

Another paramedic, who worked previously as a registered nurse, has written to my office, and I would like to take the chamber's time to read his letter, as follows:

I am 43 years old, married with two children and have been employed in the health sector for over 20 years. I spent adolescence in St John's cadets and seniors prior to becoming a Registered Nurse for 14 years, then becoming a Paramedic in 2004. I am writing this letter to you in desperation of highlighting the disadvantages that have been placed on injured workers within the emergency services.

I applaud the push to increase the level of care required regarding injured SAPOL officers. SAPOL are a unique workforce with unique skills and qualifications. As such, if they were/are to be injured whilst on duty to the point of not being able to return back to full-time work, they deserve to be financially supported until retirement or until they find another career (if not in a position with their previous employer) with the same award conditions. SA Ambulance Service is ALSO a unique workforce with unique skills and qualifications. We as an industry are twice as likely to be seriously injured in the line of duty compared to our Police F orce colleagues. The current policy and arrangements mean devastation for those who are injured to the point of not being able to return to operational work and end up losing their career.

I speak to you as one of these workers currently unable to perform my qualification due to injuries as a result of a stretcher collapse with a patient on board. My injury occurred in September 2012, and resulted in 3 disk bulges with nerve impingement. As a result I suffer chronic pain and limitation to daily activities, including a permanent limp due to one of my legs constantly giving way. This obviously was not the case prior to the injury. The situation is made worse because I am a country career Paramedic.

The resultant injury has meant delays in getting specialist appointments because of locality and hesitancy/resistance of some specialists not wanting to see WorkCover patients due to not being paid within a reasonable span of time (a separate issue). The injury has meant a loss of my career, one I was good at and wanted to further develop, and one in which I saw myself retiring from one day. The impact of this injury has meant major changes in my daily ability to attend even the most basic of tasks or chores, both personal, parental and domestic, and has put my relationship with my wife and children at the risk of falling apart. The primary reason for all of this is financial loss and uncertainty.

We moved from Adelaide 8 years ago to the country (1 acre property) for a number of reasons, primarily because the working conditions and rewards were better than what it was within the metro area of Adelaide. SA Ambulance dangled a very enticing carrot to any staff to move out to the country as it was hard to find staff and families willing to make such a big move, unless they grew up in the area and/or had family or social support networks there. The bonus was that I could provide for my family as the primary income earner, as my wife had recently had a back injury herself and was unable to work full time.

The incident occurred through a minor miss in communication, and the human reaction of instinctively trying to prevent someone from falling. The result was instant and painful. The pain got worse over the next hour and resulted in my having to go off shift. Since that time I have dealt with 24 hour a day pain that peaks on movement and even when trying to sleep, pain which was so sharp and intense that the simple action of reaching for a drink while sitting down resulted in my dropping of the drink due to the intensity of the pain. I have had X-rays, CTs, MRIs, Physiotherapy, Neurosurgical Specialists, Pain Specialists, Clinical Physicians, Psychologists, Psychiatrists and minor surgery.

Now that pain did subside fractionally , but it took years of physio, massage, medications and injections into the spine and all of that only reduce d the level of pain less than half. It could be said that the treatment received over the last 1-2 years has been more maintenance than proactive. It had immediate impacts on my home life , being unable to attend chores I would have done with ease previously. Everything from sweeping, laundry, mowing lawns, pruning bushes, chopping wood ( a country heating necessity ), renovations, cleaning gutters, driving, shopping and more were all severely impacted or had to be ceased.

Personally I could no longer do piggy - back rides for my kids , help training with kids sports, take them four wheel driving ( a long standing passion and hobby ) and even my levels of normal childhood mucking a round dropped as my sleep was permanently altered and broken , meaning I was tired and grumpy far more than I wanted to be or ever was.

Personally , the injury has also taken its toll on my relationship with my wife and has meant that 3 years after the injury, I have now spent 2 and ½ of those years not able to sleep in ' our ' bedroom. Part of this was due to poor sleeping ability due to pain or fear of being bumped in the back , but more devastatingly the inability to be intimate ( due to pain and injury limitation ) with my wife. The stress of the injury itself and the financial burden it placed on the family was and is something I fear and have the hardest time dealing with. This has led to periods of depression and anxiety and weight gain—something else WorkCover is unwilling to address other than to refer me to a N utritionist — I have one B achelor and the equivalent to another degree in health and 23 years in health , I think I know how to modify my own diet to reflect the calorie usage post - injury.

Household items have been sold , either due to not being able to use them now because of my limitations ( further dropping level of independence ) of the injury , or because being on 80 % income and out of pocket expenses have caused and will now cause even more financial hardship (f inancial advice of a possibility of losing our home within 5 years, 3 years after the income support from WorkCover w ould cease ) .

No work related injury should cause this much devastation to a family for something beyond the injured person's control. The hit to one's pride and independence is something that can never be understood unless you have been in a similar situation , b ut to have colleagues volunteer their own time to help you out by doing YOUR gardening , and house maintenance is both depressing and deeply heart - warming. I prided myself on being able to do so much around the home and with the family , that to have the need for others to do what I should be able to do is shattering to one 's spirit. The fact is I can't be the person I was before and that's hard to take some days.

What makes this worse is being told by the G overnment that it is changing the goal posts ( more than likely because of a minority of rorters ) which means I only get 2 years of income support ( at 80 %) and 3 years of support for medications and treatment. After this, I am on my own. Because of my injury, I can't stay within SA Ambulance as a P aramedic , and , as a result of SA Ambulance being under SA Health and under the same cost cutting knife as other health agencies, plus being out country, my chances of staying with my employer are next to nil. Nor is there any opportunity for them to be able to provide any positions for an injured worker , thereby retaining train ed staff and having that feeling of still being valued or wanted. If I had lived in the Adelaide metro politan area when this injury occurred I would have had more of a chance at access to many more working opportunities than what ALL country career staff have available to them currently.

Because of this , and the uniqueness of our skills and qualifications, there is nowhere for me to go. SA A S can't even employ some one to separately look after those injured to the point of not being able to return to previous employment. I have been through 8 injury managers or senior return to work consultants , s ome have been good and tried their best under the circumstances, but when more than one of them admits to the re not being enough resources / personnel / time to devote to people in my situation of not being able to return to work, where does that leave me?

How am I supposed to feel when the company I 'v e given my all to doesn't have the ability to look after me during my injury process and why isn't there any occupational opportunities planned for such staff, especially considering the amount of money they have spent in training us?

I am left without a career, financial stability and will probably lose my home … and family due to the financial and personal stress this injury has caused and is leading to. I have been assessed as having a whole person injury level of 20 %, just far enough below the 30 % ( as part of the changes brought in the 1 st of July this year ) that I don't qualify for income support until retirement — something I feel is desperately unfair to those industries that are employed to support, defend and protect everyone else, and those industries hardest to find lateral job opportunities to those who can't remain with their previous employers.

We didn't ask for these injuries, nor the heartache and lifelong impacts these injuries WILL have to health, family and career prospects, but to, at the very least, have some financial support up to what we were receiving prior to the injury, it would be nice to see the Government care about us the same way we have cared for ALL of our patients/public/citizens. One of my closest friends (also in health) suggested I have been displaying PTSD symptoms/behaviours—I think that's a distinct possibility, but because WorkCover can only assess the PRIMARY injury cause and not the subsequent injuries/illnesses, I am left to deal with it the best I can, well the best I hope I can.

There is so much more I could go into it's hard to think of, and write it all, in one letter. I just appeal to you to do the best you can to make changes to the current system so that those of us injured and in financial distress, have something to look forward to other than disappointment.

Kind regards

Former Paramedic/RN.

Another case that has been brought to my attention is that of a registered nurse who has also worked as an ambulance officer. She has shared her story and would like this chamber to hear it. She says:

I was a registered nurse for a couple of years. As a Nurse I was spat on, had my wrist sprained, was punched in the head by an elderly patient with dementia, verbally assaulted and threatened with violence. Most of my colleagues have had to be escorted to their car at the end of the shift due to threats they received while doing their job.

As an Ambulance officer, I have been chased with a baseball bat, had a psych patient with a knife in the back of the ambulance after being reassured by the hospital security that the patient had been checked for weapons. I have had patients try to touch me inappropriately in the back of the ambulance.

I have suffered from my neck injury since 2009. I have been on countless medications so that I can continue to undertake daily tasks. The Spinal Fusion that I currently have was a result of the lost sensation in my left hand and arm. I have received medical advice which says that my injury will deteriorate over my lifetime.

I can no longer go back on the road as an ambulance officer as I am restricted with how much physical work I can do as I still have pain in other regions of my spine and suffer from constant headaches and neck and shoulder pain. Losing my job as an ambulance officer has been awful. I loved it and I went through a rough time mentally when I was told I couldn't be one any more.

Now I work in an office on reduced pay. I am a very positive person and have started to bounce back but it has been a long and emotional journey. Knowing I will need further treatment post the two year mark and I won't be covered is very stressful. I'm a single mum with kids and have great support from my ex-husband who is also an ambulance officer. I have also had a lot of support from my family but this is a frightening prospect not being supported after two years when my payments cease.

I have been informed that this worker's injuries have been calculated at 28 per cent whole person impairment. Despite the pain, the suffering and the continuous stress, this worker is not defined under our laws as a seriously injured worker. My office has received many more examples of injured workers in our state who are struggling with the current laws. Ambulance officers have been stabbed, punched and spat on, and one of these ambulance officers was hit by a paving rock. Ambulance officers have been exposed to bodily fluids, including blood and vomit, and are exposed to both diseases and violence while on duty.

The Greens understand the high-risk job and that the trauma faced by paramedics in a four-day shift cycle is more than what most people will face in their whole life. When faced with aggression and violence, these workers are expected to simply defuse the situation. I have also been advised that nurses often face these situations in their daily jobs. They report being sexually assaulted while looking after patients and they have been spat on and also exposed to bodily fluids.

While we do not want to see in our state a situation such as the one the Law Society has pointed out will exist if we continue to cater for one section of the workforce, we will support this bill today. We hope it is the first step. We hope that the government reflects on its flawed and draconian return-to-work legislation and ensures not only that they support police officers who support and protect us but that they support all workers—as the Labor Party, indeed, was formed to do. I would like to quote the President of the Law Society from The Advertiser earlier this week, Monday 18 November, who said:

What o f police officers who are injured during the course of an office job? A case could be made for all police officers given their service to the state. So too could a strong case for exemption be argued for other emergency services workers such as ambulance drivers and firefighters. Again, the same interesting arguments arise for those employed by emergency services authorities but are not at obvious risk of peril when injured.

I note that the Law Society has provided some interim advice by way of a press release issued on the 16th of this month. We sought an opinion, as often happens, from the Law Society on Mr Brokenshire's bill, but given the speed with which this debate has progressed, they were unable to provide that. However, I would like to share with the chamber before my concluding comments that Law Society statement entitled, 'Law Society provides clarification on workers compensation debate.' It reads:

Given the recent debate around workers compensation laws, which have b een brought into focus by an SA Police Association campaign, the Law Society wishes to clarify some points about the operation of the Return to Work Act, which came into effect on July 1 this year, and to make some general comments.

Under the new workers compensation scheme, only injured workers assessed as having at least 30 per cent whole person impairment (WPI) would be eligible for weekly payments until retirement and ongoing medical support. Any injured worker under that threshold will be entitled to weekly payments for a maximum of two years and medical expenses for a maximum of three years. That was not so under the previous scheme.

There is provision under the Act for an interim assessment and determination of workers' injuries. Where this occurs, the worker would continue to receive entitlements. However, as the name suggests, it is only interim in nature and is expected to be uncommon because most injuries will be capable of a final assessment within two years. There is no difference in the entitlement during the first two years for either weekly payments or medical expenses between those who are ultimately assessed a s seriously injured (i.e. at least 30% WPI) and those who are not.

There is ongoing uncertainty for injured workers who have an interim assessment of being seriously injured until the final assessment is undertaken.

Injured workers who are not treated as seriously injured can apply to have the medical costs covered beyond the maximum three-year period only for surgical treatment and only where appropriate notice is given to ReturnToWorkSA before the end of the usual entitlement period to claim medical expenses. While the maximum period is three years it may be as little as 12 months.

The maximum lump sum for economic loss is $ 350,000. However , to be eligible for this lump sum, the worker must be aged 25 or younger, in full-time employment when the injury occurred, and suffered a WPI of 29 per cent. The vast majority of entitlements, where they do apply, will be dramatically less than that .

While the old workers compensation scheme was in need of reform, and particularly in relation to its administration, the Law Society does not consider the new scheme to be more generous . In fact, for many workers with significant injuries, their entitlements will be reduced. Even those assessed as seriously injured may get less compensation for permanent impairment because of changes to the way in which the percentage of impairment is required to be assessed.

The Government has noted that the changes implemented have resulted in a reduction in premium for employers from 2.75 per cent to 1.95 per cent. Return to work rates after four weeks and 12 months have not materially changed following the implementation of the new scheme. The issue always has been and remains the level of benefit for those who have not been successfully returned to work within 12 months. The Society believes that the reduction in benefits to many workers in that category has contributed to the reduction in premium for employers.

It is important that a workers compensation scheme treats all injured workers fairly and consistently.

We agree with that. We opposed the threshold of 30 per cent when the government introduced it, and the debate was held in this place a year ago. We will continue to support workers in this bill today and in any bill that comes before us to ensure that seriously injured workers are, indeed, given appropriate, fair and just workers compensation.

The Greens are listening to the voices and stories of all injured workers, and we have heard the police officers' voices loud and clear today in this debate, and I am very heartened to see this chamber support those voices, as I expect the vote will be in the affirmative. But the Greens will be, and always have been, a voice for workers, and we will stand up for injured workers every Bill, every time.

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