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Public sector managers fear Comcare stress claims

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Commonwealth public service managers believe some employees consider the Comcare workers’ compensation scheme a “soft touch”, a Senate inquiry has been told.

In a submission on proposed Comcare reforms, the Australian Public Service Commission – an agency within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – says the scheme impedes managers because they fear claims of bullying and harassment.

Current legislation lets managers take “reasonable administrative action” but the commission says courts have adopted a narrow interpretation of what is reasonable when managers have tried to address poor performance by employees.

It says changes in the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill will empower managers to address underperformance without fear of a reprisal through workers’ compensation claims.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance opposes the legislation “in its entirety”.

Its submission to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee says the Bill puts big business’ interests ahead of injured workers.

“Comcare is recognised as a terrible performer on safety oversight, enforcement and prosecution compared with the states and territories,” it says.

The alliance warns employers will evade responsibility by claiming workers have suffered injuries because of age.

Psychological injuries will be harder to prove and Comcare will be able to create limiting criteria on certain injuries, without being subject to checks and balances.

The role of a worker’s own medical practitioner in rehabilitation will be minimised, and there is no meaningful access to common law.

The alliance says workers’ legal costs will be limited, but the money spent by employers and insurers will not.

Comcare’s submission says the Bill will enable better claims management by requiring early notification of injuries, clear rehabilitation roles and responsibilities, obligations to help staff find employment and work readiness assessments.

Construction company John Holland – a self-insurer under the scheme – supports proposals to streamline processes but says a mandated schedule of medical treatment fees may restrict the number of bookings doctors will take, and slow return to work.

“Our people are often working in remote and rural settings where choice of treatment is limited and we do not support legislation that may result in them needing to seek treatment in alternate locations purely due to cost”, or where employees may need to contribute to the cost, it says.