Commonwealth government can’t stop elder care workers from working at multiple homes after a major union wins a battle to make a ‘one employer’ policy illegal, said Richard Colbeck, Secretary of State for Aged Care services.
On Monday, two elderly care residents and two staff members tested positive at two Melbourne facilities as the city’s outbreak rose to 51 cases.
Staff at both private residences – Arcare Maidstone and Bluecross Western Gardens – worked in different facilities before the outbreak.
Health workers are seen arriving at the Arcare Aged Care facility in Maidstone, Melbourne to clean the facility
As a result, the government has come under fire for failing to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading between nursing homes where the country’s most vulnerable live.
But Senator Colbeck said it was actually illegal to introduce a “one employer” rule after the Health Services Union sued a retirement home and won.
The union represented music therapist Belinda Anne Maher who was told by Huntingdon Nursing Home in Sydney that she had nowhere else to work.
The House had decided to adopt a single employer policy in March 2020 to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19.
But the Health Services Union argued that it was a breach of contract for the house to demand that Ms. Maher not work in two other nursing homes.
A resident waves from a retirement home in Melbourne’s Maidstone suburb of Melbourne
The Fair Work Commission sided with the union and ruled that “the COVID-19 pandemic does not give an employer a unilateral right to change or otherwise alter an employee’s terms of employment.”
Mr Colbeck referred to this verdict when he was grilled Tuesday morning by ABC journalist Fran Kelly.
When asked why nurses were allowed to work in multiple homes, he said: ‘It’s actually not legal to limit someone’s ability to work. It’s actually against the law.’
However, in July last year, the Commonwealth government set up a system where workers would choose one employer during an outbreak, but still get paid for lost work.
Under that system, employees are paid by their primary employer for the hours they cannot work in another home.
The primary employer then receives compensation from the federal government for the money paid for hours not worked.
The system will activate automatically in a region declared a hotspot and will take two weeks, Colbeck said.
‘It has been used four times in Victoria, once in NSW and twice in Queensland,’ he explained.
It means that employees of Commonwealth-regulated houses in Melbourne have only been able to work in one house as of Thursday.
Mr Colbeck said it is not practical to limit staff to one employer if there is no outbreak as that would create a serious shortage.
He said the system’brought to us by the Victorian government bas we both had to maintain some flexibility in the workforce during the pandemic to maintain capacity.
“We have subsequently used the system in other jurisdictions… to limit staff movement during periods of community transfer.”
Daily Mail Australia has contacted the Health Services Union for comment.
Of Australia’s 910 coronavirus deaths, 685 were elderly care residents, and there are fears the latest outbreak – which stemmed from a quarantine hotel in Adelaide – could cause more.
Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck and Shadow Secretary of State Penny Wong
Health Minister Greg Hunt said a 99-year-old vaccinated woman, now in hospital, had contracted Covid at the Arcare home in Melbourne’s west but had not shown any symptoms.
A second resident, 95, has been retested on medical advice after showing a ‘weak positive’, Mr Colbeck said.
Nine locally-acquired cases and two in hotel quarantine were registered in Melbourne on Tuesday from nearly 42,700 tests, but six of those local infections had been confirmed a day earlier.
Nearly 20,500 Victorians received the Covid vaccine on Monday to take the state-administered dose count after 494,000.
There is growing fear that Victoria’s seven-day ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown will be extended to a second week, as the list of exposure sites increased to 329 sites and the cluster reached 54 cases.
Health workers prepare Pfizer vaccinations at Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Center mass vaccination center in Melbourne on May 28
The shutdown marks the state’s fourth shutdown for 6.5 million Victorians since the pandemic began in early 2020.
The decision to end the lockdown does not depend on the number of new cases, but on the type of cases and whether they are related to already known or mysterious sources.
Contact tracers are struggling to identify about 4,200 close contacts and 279 exposure sites as the lockdown approaches on Thursday.
Of the 4,000 close contacts currently in self-isolation in Victoria, about 80 percent have returned negative tests.
The number one concern for health authorities was three cases linked to a retirement home in north-west Melbourne after two hours on Monday Arcare Maidstone employees and a 99-year-old resident tested positive for Covid-19.
None of the cases announced Tuesday are related to elderly care.
Acting Victorian Prime Minister James Merlino addresses media at a press conference in Melbourne on Monday