A vicious attack set off a trek though the harsh New South Wales workers compensation system for nurse Karen Archer.
Karen Archer’s life changed when she walked into her ward to find a man menacing another staff member and patients with a steel-capped boot.
“I said ‘Oi, what are you doing?’ and he just dropped the boot and ran at me,” said Karen, who was nurse in charge when the attack happened in February 2010.
The man charged Karen driving her across the corridor into a steel door surround. “Then he started kicking and punching me – I can’t remember much else,” she said.
After a short period of disorientation and possible loss of consciousness, Karen was taken by wheelchair to ED where she was interviewed by police and seen by the house doctor on duty.
She says she was not x-rayed or given a CT head scan. Despite being in shock she was allowed to drive home alone – a trip of more than an hour.
Karen’s ribs were bruised externally and she had excruciating back pain along with a whiplash-like injury to her neck. X-rays and MRI imaging later revealed fractured lower vertebrae and disk bulging and displacement in her upper cervical spine.
For Karen the assault was the start of a four-year ordeal through the NSW workers compensation system.
She was injured more than two years before the Liberal/National government slashed the scheme. But the 43-year-old single mother remains trapped by the government’s retrospective changes to the law.
Her back injury and ongoing neurological symptoms have left her unable to cope with bedside nursing. She is on a temporary contract doing administrative work, but if she can’t continue to get work she will not receive compensation payments. She is no longer entitled to payment of medical expenses.
Had the scheme not changed in 2012 she would have been entitled to weekly compensation payments and payment of medical expenses until she reached retirement age.
Karen’s back injuries triggered an “everyday headache” that has never gone away, along with regular migraines for two years after the assault.
“Although the migraines are infrequent now, when they do occur they are debilitating. If I need time off work I have to use regular sick pay.
“I have not had a headache–free day since February 2010 but I have learned to live with it.”
She also suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress.
Karen had six months off work with weekly compensation payments equivalent to an average of her income for the two years before the attack.
After six months WorkCover told Karen she had to return to work or lose more money. She was assessed as fit for light duties on restricted hours, though she was still receiving physiotherapy and taking large amounts of pain relief.
She went back to work part time – three half-days per week – and received make-up pay from WorkCover to bring her weekly wage up to the same amount she received for the first six months.
By April 2011 Karen was back at work full time, though still unable to perform clinical nursing duties or work overtime or do shift work.
“I was doing audits on wards but as my hours increased they struggled to find me meaningful work.”
In 2012 WorkCover advised Karen that because of the amendments to the law she would lose her entitlement to any workers compensation, including make-up pay, by August that year.
In January 2014 the hospital administration threatened to withdraw suitable duties, which would have left Karen without a job.
“That put incredible stress and pressure on me, leading to increasing symptoms and more days off work,” she said.
Karen believes the legislative changes and lack of educational and rollout support put the hospital personnel responsible for her case in a difficult situation.
“Decisions were made that were extremely stressful and damaging to my healing process. But I do not blame my management or the people in WorkCover. I feel they are victims of these reforms as much as the injured worker.”
The NSWNMA represented Karen at several meetings and “were left with no other option than to go into dispute with my employer.
“I can’t fault the union – they gave me fantastic assistance,” she says. “I wouldn’t have my job today if it wasn’t for the union.”
Karen believes she was fortunate to be injured before the law changed, because the first six months off work on compensation “were imperative to my healing.
“Today if someone is injured they are not allowed to take this much time and the financial burdens are far greater.
“I don’t believe anyone who is injured doing their job should be treated like a criminal and put in a financial state that will take them years to recover from.
“My advice to any nurse is make sure you join the union and get income protection insurance. Do not rely on the workers compensation system.”
Karen’s income remains more than $300 per week below her pre-injury rate and the workers comp changes mean she is no longer entitled to have that loss reimbursed. She also has to foot the bills for medical treatment and medicines.
With full custody of three teenagers it has been a struggle to stretch her reduced income from one week to the next.
“My injuries have affected my children emotionally and financially. They’ve also had to suffer because of what happened to me at work.”
Karen doubts that the politicians responsible for cutting workers compensation thought about the impact of their reforms on workers and their families.
“The politicians get good salaries and conditions. What grates on me is their lack of insight into ordinary people’s lives.”
Karen says she currently has “wonderful support” from her hospital’s management where she remains on contract until June next year.
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