WORKERS COMPENSATION AMENDMENT (PROTECTION OF INJURED WORKERS) BILL 2017
I am pleased to contribute to debate on the Workers Compensation Amendment (Protection of InjuredWorkers) Bill 2017 . I thank the member for Cessnock for drafting and tabling this private member's bill and for introducing it in this House . L ike the member for Cessnock , I have received a lot of calls from injured workers whose lives have been devastated by the current workers compensation scheme . In my view every worker is entitled to expect to go to work and to come home in one piece. I think all members share that view.
In the event of an accident workers should be duly compensated for an injury sustained in the course of their employment. Although this bill is just a small step towards restoring fairness to the workers compensation scheme in New South Wales, it will make an enormous difference in the lives of those who will be affected.
I echo the comments of the member for Cessnock in the second reading speech about moving beyond politics on this issue. At the end of the day, as elected representatives and legislators we have an obligation to the people of New South Wales. We have an obligation to ensure that our actions and the actions of government do not impose undue hardship on the lives of the most vulnerable—and injured workers who are feeling the brunt of the 2012 workers compensation reforms are incredibly vulnerable. When there is a lever of government that we can pull to rectify wrongs we have an obligation to ensure that we pull that lever.
In 1910 Premier Charles Wade of the Liberal Reform Party introduced the first incarnation of our current workers compensation scheme into the New South Wales Parliament. Reading speeches from more than 100 years ago, I could not help but be struck by the similarities between then and now. Advocates of fairness and justice on both sides of the political divide supported the Workmen's Compensation Bill 1910 because the existing common law doctrines had become "productive of hardship". Both the Government and the Opposition were able to put politics aside and focus on what was right for workers.
In 1910 New South Wales was well behind comparable jurisdictions such as Queensland, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Such is the case today, when we have the most draconian workers compensation laws in the country. More than a century later, we are again talking about the same issues in this place. The bean counters opposite may look at the figures of the workers compensation scheme and think that they have done a great job, but they have failed miserably in calculating the human cost associated with their draconian laws. They are not saving anyone money; they are simply pushing people off workers compensation and onto welfare. In some instances, they are casting injured workers into abject poverty, purely to make the bottom line look better. In 1910 Premier Wade said in relation to introducing a workers compensation scheme:
We will not pay, in my judgment, one single cent more than we are paying now. We pay it all now just the same. Do not think for a moment we are not paying it. We are paying it in the hospitals, in the poorhouses, in the degradation, in the pulling down of all these people where they are swept under and become the submerged tenth, simply because we are not doing justice to them.
I stress that the workers compensation scheme in its current form is not delivering justice to the workers of New South Wales. This bill is not generous; it is modest at best and makes just a few small, affordable changes to the scheme that will go some way towards restoring fairness. The changes in the bill would have the effect of: restoring the entitlement to make a claim for injury incurred on the journey to and from work; redefining "suitable employment" to reflect the reality of an injured worker's situation, including their skills and their place of residence; removing provisions that limit the payment of an injured worker's expenses for medical, hospital and rehabilitation treatment and services; creating an offence for an employer to dismiss, at any time, an injured worker because the worker is not fit for employment as a result of the injury; and removing the five-year cut-off period for weekly payments of compensation to injured workers. Since 2015 I have met with constituents receiving workers compensation payments and their families. For them the five-year limit imposed by those opposite loomed large. Since then, as we know, their payments have been terminated—piling severe financial hardship onto them on top of their work-related injuries.
In March last year I met with Mark, whose wife, Yvette, worked at BI-LO until 2000 when she suffered a spinal injury. Still living with the ramifications of her injury, Yvette is unable to work. She cannot stand or sit for long periods and she is often in pain. Yvette has been assessed as having whole person impairment of 12 per cent, though some doctors have suggested it is higher than 20 per cent. Mark told me that when Yvette's workers compensation payments ceased in November they would have to sell their house because they could not manage the repayments on his wage alone.
I also met with Susan, who injured her back, neck, and shoulders and left sacroiliac joint whilst at work in 1995. Between 2012 and 2015 Susan underwent four work capacity decisions, four internal reviews, two merit reviews and two procedural reviews. She described the effect her injury has had on her life. She cannot lift her arms above chest height, which means she cannot do simple tasks such as brush her hair. She cannot do many household chores. Her work capacity is currently assessed as being up to two hours per day, four days per week, but that takes a significant toll on her health and she spends weeks recovering. Susan was assessed as having 7 per cent whole person impairment by the insurer. Her own doctor assessed her as having 17 per cent whole person impairment.
Regardless, both Susan and Yvette have less than the arbitrary 20 per cent whole person impairment required in the legislation. It is those women and people like them who had their payments unceremoniously terminated last year and who have been pushed into financial hardship by legislation enacted by this Government. Susan and Yvette are just two injured workers I have met with, and there are many more in my community. Though each has a different story, there is a common theme for all: pain, suffering and hardship. The bill does not ask for much. It simply asks that we do not make these people's lives worse than they currently are.
The other entirely arbitrary aspect of the scheme is the time limit on medical expenses. The Act states, "Compensation is not payable to an injured worker in respect of any treatment, service or assistance given or provided after the expiry of the compensation period." It further says that if the injury has resulted in a degree of permanent impairment assessed to be 10 per cent or less a compensation period of two years applies and if the permanent impairment is between 10 per cent and 20 per cent a period of five years applies. Let us think about that. Permanent impairment by its definition means irreversible, lifelong, irreparable damage. The time frame is not based on any reason or logic. It was whimsically plucked out of the air with little regard for the devastating impact it would have on an injured worker's life.
More than a century ago, both sides of politics recognised that the lack of protection for injured workers was a gross injustice that required a remedy. Today we have the opportunity to ensure that we not moving backwards. Members opposite have the means to do what is right and to get this done. The workers compensation scheme is now more than $2 billion in surplus. When these laws were enacted in 2012, the Government justified its abject cruelty by arguing that the scheme was in deficit and the changes were necessary. Whether or not that was true then is not the issue today. The fact is that the justification that the Government relied on in 2012 is no longer applicable. These changes are affordable, and it would be plain old mean spirited to vote against them. [Extension of time]
Let us look at journey claims, which amount to only about 2.5 per cent of all claims for workers compensation. The current definition is so prohibitive that to date only one or two cases have met the criteria of "real and substantial connection with employment." Workers in regional areas like my electorate face a higher risk of accident or injury on their way to and from work purely because they need to travel further. Because of that, they have carried a greater burden since 2012 when journey claims were scrapped. Restoring journey claims would have a minimal effect on the workers compensation scheme but would ultimately mean that people injured through no fault of their own on the way to or from work would have some income throughout their recovery.
Such a tiny amendment, which would have a minimal impact on the bottom line, would make a world of difference to a worker who needs it.
What about suitable employment? It is no surprise that injured workers refer to the current definition of "suitable" employment as the "fantasy land cut-off." The current legislation specifically states that insurers will make decisions about suitable employment regardless of whether the work or the employment is available, or whether the work or employment is of a type or nature that is generally available in the employment market. It also states that insurers will make decisions about suitable employment regardless of the nature of the worker's pre-injury employment or the worker's place of residence. Let us think about that for a minute. The current legislation directs insurers to disregard some of the most important factors when making decisions about suitable employment. That direction does not exist in any other jurisdiction in Australia.
I often wonder whether those opposite intended to create the legislative form of Frankenstein's Monster when they were piecing together this workers compensation scheme—that is, assembling the ugliest parts of other schemes into something cruel and callous and then adding some extra horrible bits. Today, those opposite have the opportunity to make these minor adjustments to help the 4,500 injured workers around New South Wales—injured workers like Yvette and Susan. It will not make their lives better, but it will not make them any worse. That is the choice. I commend the bill to the House.