Parliament: Other Speeches

Return To Work Act

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: Dignity for Disability certainly welcomes the opportunity to support this motion and investigate this legislation, brought forward by the Hon. Tammy Franks in conjunction with the Hon. John Darley, to inquire into the current workers compensation scheme and the impact that these new laws are having or will have on injured workers. Being injured at work is certainly not something we will hope happens to us or to our family, friends or people we know and care about, but it unfortunately remains a fact of life.

It does happen, and we need a system which recognises the impact workplace injuries can have on a person’s whole life. It is an impact that can last a lifetime and in fact many aspects, if not every aspect, of daily living. It is beholden on all of us to examine the consequences of this legislation on the quality of life of injured workers and how we can work to improve that quality of life. Particular concerns have been expressed, as I am sure members would be aware, in the community about the 30 per cent whole-person impairment (WPI) threshold to have medical costs and wages supplement payments carried on.

Constituents have raised with me the situation of older, particularly partially incapacitated workers, who were on the previous WorkCover scheme. With South Australia’s ageing population being combined with workers staying longer in the workforce, we need to be alert to specific situations of older workers. Under section 56 of this legislation, if you are injured under the old WorkCover scheme, you are not entitled to economic loss, even though, under the new Return to Work Scheme, after two years you will lose the weekly wage build-up component, which is up to 80 per cent of your wage pre-injury.

Added to this is the very real possibility of being made redundant or dismissed after the said 104 weeks, with no financial compensation for your work-related injury. The phrase ‘thrown on the scrapheap’ comes to mind, and that is no way to treat anybody. We need to review the large financial incentives for the employer to reduce a longstanding employee’s salary to the lowest level possible after the 52-week mark if they are unable to return to their pre-injury role or pay level.

Employers, by placing the older worker in particular in a much lower position or base rate, will in turn have an impact on employee time-related entitlements, for example, annual leave, quarterly and yearly bonuses, superannuation and long service leave and, of course, there is the risk that, when we arrive at the 104-week mark, the older worker is dismissed or made redundant or is being paid at a vastly lower rate, effectively saving the employer many thousands of dollars by having, of course as I have said, a severe impact on that particular worker’s quality of life.

Furthermore, under section 39 of the legislation, which covers income maintenance, for the first two years under the return-to-work legislation injured workers are entitled to income maintenance for the first year at 100 per cent of their average weekly earnings, and for the second year at 80 per cent of their average earnings. If they are deemed to be under their 30 per cent whole-person impairment threshold, all income maintenance is stopped at the end of the second year.

To be incapacitated at or over 30 per cent whole-person injury, a worker would have to be very severely injured, but if they have secondary injuries to their main injury they can combine their injuries for a higher whole-person impairment percentage rate. It is important to note here that psychiatric and psychological injury, resulting from a physical work-related injury, cannot be added to the physical injury whole-person impairment percentage rate, as they are measured as stand-alone mental injury.

Older workers who were injured during the time of the old WorkCover scheme cannot now claim secondary injuries to increase their whole-person impairment percentage rate due to the change in legislation and date of their injury. There was no reason under the old WorkCover scheme to pursue secondary injuries, bar for the small section 43 payment, as income was guaranteed until retirement age and not removed at the 104-week period. Injured older workers who were on WorkCover require access to claim economic/non-economic loss and the ability to secure secondary injuries to the primary injury under the current return-to-work legislation.

The withdrawal of income maintenance at the 104-week mark needs to be totally removed from the Return to Work Act to stop placing financial incentive for employers to lower injured workers wages, as this will cause the harsh flow-on effect to employees’ long-term entitlements. As it stands, the future outcome for injured workers, particularly older workers, will be age and injury-related unemployment and reliance on government assistance. We cannot afford adding insult to injury, quite literally, through the potential flow-on effects of the loss of self-esteem, family breakdown and even potential suicide attempts resulting from such harsh economic constraints, brought about through no fault of their own. These working people of South Australia deserve better from government and better from parliament. With those few words, Dignity for Disability welcomes the opportunity to examine this legislation, particularly the ramifications of it, and offer our support for the motion.