Useful, diligent, experienced, expendable

Pat Towells has 30 years experience working with elderly people, 20 of those in the service of her last employer. But despite demonstrating a capacity to fulfill a multitude of suitable duties she was shown the door after suffering a workplace injury.

img-114123055-0001Assistant in Nursing Pat Towells was on night duty with a lone RN on shift, carrying out a routine task, when she suffered an injury that was to devastate her life.

“We were using a slip sheet. I went to pull it and she pulled it as well so I went forward instead of backwards and I fell on the resident. It was like someone stuck a knife in me. The pain ran right down my back,” she said.

“I worked the rest of the shift then went home and had the next day off. On a Sunday morning it hit me and down I went. I woke up screaming with pain. I saw the doctor when I could hardly move. An x-ray showed four to five vertebrae out of place.”

Pat had worked as an AiN at the BUPA facility in Armidale for 20 years and was seen as a pillar of the workplace.

“I had young staff asking me for advice. I was like a mother to kids who had left home and gone to university to become a nurse. I loved my work. I felt comfortable in it. I like having to deal with oldies. I’ve been handling old folks for 30 years.”

Inevitably, Pat had to take time off work to recover from the injury.

“I used up all my sick leave, annual leave and my long service leave of 20 years. BUPA accepted responsibility for the accident and put me on light duties when I was ready to return to work,” she said. “I was doing office work, feeding and grooming residents, handing out meals. I was doing all sorts of things under the sun. They were even calling me in on my days off. I was useful and BUPA Armidale had plenty of things for me to do.”

Then out of the blue, on 28 August, a termination notice came from the head office in Sydney.

“I was devastated. I’m the only working person in the household. My husband is sick with pancreatitis. My income had been keeping both of us. Thank God we don’t owe any money. I’m not entitled to the pension so we are living off savings and my husband’s pension.”

BUPA refused to reinstate Pat, despite the NSWNMA putting a list of 52 meaningful suitable duties that Pat could carry out at the facility. Her doctor also certified her as fit for suitable duties.

Pat is 64 and had planned to retire in the next year or two. She is restricted by age, skills and the limitations of her rural location from finding other means to support herself and her family.

“It’s hard to get another job in Armidale. There are not many jobs here. I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”

Injured workers suffering hardship and despair

It’s now 18 months since the New South Wales government introduced changes to the state workers compensation scheme. Research by Unions NSW shows that the changes are deeply unpopular and catastrophic for injured workers.

The survey found that:

  • 93% of people opposed the changes.
  • 92% of people opposed cuts to injured workers weekly payments after 2.5 years.
  • 92% opposed the removal of medical payments from injured workers one year after their weekly payments stopped.

Respondents to the survey were equally damning of the changes by the government to workers compensation journey claims.

92% of people believed that workers should be covered by workers compensation when travelling to and from work.

Unions NSW said the previous scheme “acknowledged the dangers that workers are exposed to when travelling to and from work.

“Workers compensation claims played an important role in the NSW legislation prior to June 2012 and assisted thousands of workers to return to work as quickly as possible with the support they needed.”

Unions NSW says that in the survey “injured workers wrote of the frustration they felt when told their weekly payments would be stopped. Many of these workers are now experiencing severe financial hardship, high levels of stress, and anger at a system they thought was designed to assist injured workers.”

Many workers also spoke of the discrimination they face in the workplace when they declare they have a workers compensation claim.

For those who experienced the discontinuation of their weekly payments, the fact that their medical payments will also cease in 12 months also causes significant anxiety and fear.

The survey also revealed many stories of unbearable strain on families.

“Not receiving payment while recovering from injury has strained my family financially. The strain on relationships has increased – the stress of people living with me due to my depression and anxiety that I never suffered before the injury,” said one respondent.

The main elements of the O’Farrell Government changes

  • Limited coverage for injuries while travelling to and from work.
  • Cuts to weekly payments to injured workers from day one.
  • Stopping weekly payments for most injured workers after two and a half years.
  • Placing limits on medical payments for injured workers.
  • Preventing partners of those killed at work being compensated for nervous shock.
  • Eliminating access to lump sum payments for pain and suffering.

In their analysis of the O’Farrell Government’s cuts to workers compensation, Unions NSW points out that the changes do nothing to address the underlying cause of the problem – unsafe workplaces.

“Focusing on preventing injuries and illnesses in the first place, helping injured workers back to work and reducing the costs paid to insurers for administration is the most cost effective and equitable solution for the New South Wales government to pursue. Very little of the government’s reforms went towards preventing workplace accidents,” it says.