How's HR been this year?

This is a time of goodwill and, while it’s very easy to make jokes about HR (we’d know, we’ve done it ourselves for years) there have been some real positives in the industry in 2018.

Not the least of which is a couple of councils picking up on the health and wellbeing provisions in the Award and doing something seriously about it. This was one of our claims that went into the 2014 Award and allows for employees to claim two days from their sick leave each year for health and wellbeing activities. Unfortunately, traditional HR practitioners and local government management is reluctant to set up arrangements that require independent judgement and discretion. Far better to have a rigid list of options so the decision-making isn’t very difficult. Can’t blame me.

So the early responses to having a proactive approach to health and wellbeing were to focus solely on preventative health measures, normally provided by doctors and health professionals. It’s okay to have your skin check, but if you need a day off to clear you heard - go for a bushwalk, do a meditation course or read a book - that provided too many challenges.

Last year The Hills embraced the concept of removing restrictions on the sort of things that employees could apply to do in their two days. But The Hills example was too confronting for most councils with rigid approaches to things that you can often use sick leave for anyway.

This year we failed to convince those believing themselves to be progressive and game-changes at Lake Macquarie to introduce broad access to health and well-being activities in their Enterprise Agreement. The Council does have an arrangement that frees up the taking of sick leave but were reluctant to embrace this specific targeted health and well-being initiative. Disappointing to say the least.

Not so Newcastle City which, predominantly because of initial pressure from the three unions in the negotiations and a developing appetite in management to do something demonstrating their preparedness to trust the workforce, the EA, made at the end of this year, provides the option to be fleshed out with some guidelines later.

But, if there was ever going to be a Council where a GM would have an appetite for embracing and demonstrating trust in the workforce, it would be Liverpool City. CEO Kiersten Fishburn was always going to be open-minded and when proposals were developed by her HR team and Director of Corporate Services, she grabbed it with two hands.

Liverpool City ends the year with what is clearly best practice in the industry – a twelve month trial to “enable employees to undertake health and well-being activities that lead to positive health outcomes.” There is no prescriptive list as long as the days “fit generally within the concepts of health, fitness, exercise, improved health benefits, as well is preserving mental health in times of stress.”

A bold and courageous move we hope to see flow through other councils in 2019.

We’ve had a few issues with consultative committees, and arguments about their composition but while HR issues are a weekly phenomenon in enquiries to our office, things haven’t been too bad this year. While the private sector has been sprung ripping people off vigourously in hospitality and franchises, to the extent that the union movement is pursuing the criminalising of wage theft, we didn’t think we’d ever see anything quite like that. Wage theft, let’s not beat around the bush.

There are some usual suspects in the list of nominations and a couple of stellar performers who, with hindsight, should have been dealt with earlier. Here are the nominations:

Campbelltown City

How could Campbelltown not get a mention in 2018 when the year began with substantial display ads in the Sydney Morning Herald and employment websites for an entire “HR Team”? The chronic mismanagement and neglect of staff over recent years had led to departures from people in HR unhappy about the way GM Lindy Deitz thought the business should be run.

At last some proper recruitment in the planning area (we starting agitating for this more than two years ago) saw more than a dozen new appointments and, as we publish this, only two vacancies left to fill, the exit of people unhappy from HR makes life harder for everyone else.

And, we witnessed one of our member’s brutal and unwarranted treatment in a minor restructure. Here was a person doing substantially the work of a newly created position, everyone in the organisation from her Manager, Director, HR people, Director Corp Services and Acting GM, all endorsed her direct appointment to the job - until the GM returned to work and decided there should be an external advertisement. In terms of overriding a chain of recommendations already signed off, this has to be some kind of record – five people!

In the end, our member was appointed, offended by the process, unnecessarily worried and concerned about her job, and rightly so, in an example that just continues the litany of bad HR decision-making and ignoring the rights of employees who are long-serving and deserving of better.

Richmond Valley

Richmond Valley has flown under the radar for a long time. Former GM John Walker had set up a “scholarship” program for local young people to bring them in, try to indenture them, put them through university and have them work for the Council at the same time.

All well and good, but one young trainee planner was concerned about the rates of pay and how they didn’t appear to coincide with the T scale in the Award. So she asked to meet with the Manager People and Culture (!) for an explanation. And, for good reason, took our delegate with her to help.

Now you would think, wouldn’t you, that in a Council that talks up its commitment to gender equality and empowering women, that the Manager People and Culture’s immediate response would be helpful and empowering. And when you think about it, a trainee, with no tenure beyond the traineeship, has to be about the most vulnerable person in the place.

“If you took this to court, you would lose”, said three times during the course of what wasn’t a very helpful meeting, revealed a lot about People and Culture but more about the way the Council itself wanted to deal with the issues raised. Considering that neither the GM Vaughan MacDonald, nor the Manager People and Culture (!) were responsible for these arrangements, it should have been an easy matter to resolve. But it wasn’t.

So, as a member of ours, we pursued it and found that there had been substantial underpayments made over the entire course of the “scholarship” (which was nothing more than another name for a traineeship, under the terms of the Award) but where the Council built their scholarship program by intentionally underpaying Award entitlements – by a massive $241.70 a week in the first year.

On the face of it, getting kids from school to sign a contract that’s built upon rates of pay below those provided in the Award is taking advantage of those least able to contest it - the enthusiastic but vulnerable, keen to get a job. GM Vaughan MacDonald defended the “scholarship” arrangement because it gave kids opportunities they would not ordinarily have and that it would be our fault, pursuing this, to remove that opportunity. Funnily enough, that’s how all of those bosses guilty of wage theft in hospitality and franchising describe it as well.

There are always more opportunities if you underpay people because your money goes further. But isn’t it funny, they don’t think about ripping off their Manager People and Culture, or their other staff by trying to pay them under the Award.

In the end, we can only talk about our own member, but her underpayment, which we remedied, cost the Council around $30,000. We understand they have made adjustments to all those other traineeships as well.  No wonder they were distressed and no wonder when a begrudging general manager accepted that they were trainees under the Award, and would need to be paid based on the T scale, and adjusted every year consistent with that scale, he then thought that she could pay half her university fees.

No, Vaughan, that’s another breach of the Award. And we made sure that didn’t happen either.

Shoalhaven


Shoalhaven was one of a number of councils where the unions struggled to reduce the number of so-called “workplace” representatives on consultative committees but where we were able to reach some agreement after a difficult period of unpleasantness. Not with the GM, mind you, who has been a beacon of wisdom and tolerance since winning the Golden Turd in 2014 and 2015.

But then, someone in HR (who should know better) had a quiet word to our delegate and member of the consultative committee to tell him that providing emails from HR in the argument about the composition of the consultative committee to his union for advice may have breached the Code of Conduct because this was “Council information” and should not have been sent outside the Council!

In all the years of ludicrous and bad HR judgement, this was a first. How can a member of the consultative committee take advice from the union if they can’t supply the documents?

In the end, that advice was acknowledged as being wrong. Still, it shouldn’t have happened.

Sydney City


The City, as they like to be known, always gets a run. Their attitude to HR and employment, through a very old-fashioned Award, with the flexibilities and improvements that we have been able to introduce by agreement in the State Award ignored, with the rejection of introducing any flexibility for things like health and wellbeing access to sick leave because they failed to manage sick leave anyway, and simply didn’t trust their employees to have access to it in any other form, means they will always get a nomination.

But for one of our members, who found that their boasts about caring for the wellbeing of employees were not honoured when she presented authoritative medical evidence that her health required shorter days, and required them immediately. This request was ignored for three weeks, making that, and whomever was responsible for that decision, a clear record holder in the industry.

Medical evidence is medical evidence, if you don’t like it, you have the employee examined yourself. If the Council wants to do this, they should still comply with the medical evidence until they are in a position to inform themselves.

We fixed it. But it shouldn’t have happened.

Tweed

Tweed was our winner last year. It was the most hazardous workplace for our members in NSW and of our two members with workers compensation claims accepted, one has now left the organisation but is still receiving treatment by the insurer and the other has returned to work, albeit in a different office to the problem manager and after a great deal of suffering.

But at last, another union got involved after a member of theirs was reduced to tears by the same problem manager and his lack of empathy and incapacity to tell if people are upset.

It was enough for us that we have members reporting that the problem manager spend more time in his office, and there was not a risk of bumping into him in the tea room, so things could have been worse. But GM Troy Green, while finding it relatively easy to ignore us, hasn’t been able to find it quite that easy ignoring the USU. Ask not for whom the bell tolls at Tweed these days...  

Willoughby


GM Debra Just was appointed in 2015. A difficult time admittedly, as Willoughby looked at the prospect of merger with Mosman and North Sydney, but a staff turnover of 22% in 2015/16 is a serious effort. We’ve never seen worse. In recent years it settled in around 17% which, in itself, will be hard to be beaten by other councils.

In 2015 the first restructure provided opportunities for three of our members, having seen the writing on the wall and understanding that it read “get out of here if you can”, took redundancies. This approach, of restructuring under the guise of being more productive and efficient and providing better services, really just meant ending up with fewer people at the end of the process.

Again in 2018 the Council proposed to rationalise EHO’s into one area. We had a member who was an EHO who, when the Council provided the notice required under clause 39 of the Award, they provided us with documents about the current structure which were wrong. We think it’s probably because HR is as understaffed as everywhere else, but we knew that the current structure had a position of senior EHO and an EHO but the Council, doing something they do as a corporate philosophy and strategy, had our EHO member acting in the senior job, but really being required to do both.

The Council was apologetic about the inaccuracy (we accept it was a mistake but there remain suspicions in the workplace that it wasn’t) but it revealed a lot about a Council that should have been brought to our attention earlier.

Willoughby Council has more vacancies unfilled than any other Council we’ve dealt with this year. And, as we’ve seen from this example above, the Senior EHO position was vacant for four years! This compounds the Council’s problem because it also means that they breached that provision of the local government act preventing temporary appointments for more than 12 months. Come on Debra, have a look at section 351 (2)

There’s a lot of money to be saved by not filling jobs and having other people, often working for nothing, picking up the slack. Willoughby should do a survey of unpaid overtime...  It’s not just happening where we have members.

The USU is now agitating against the Council’s failure to advertise and fill positions, also having tolerated for too long this deliberate management strategy to have people working harder and covering the gaps, rather than filling the vacancies.

Sick leave is at unprecedented levels and they have a consultative committee that has never properly complied with the provisions of the Award - something the three unions are now involved in trying to remedy.

The current constitution was developed in 1996, it provides for a “chairman” but a “spokesperson”, so obviously in 1996 only blokes could chair the committee but any gender could be a spokesperson.

More importantly it ignores the compulsory requirements of the Award for a minimum of union representation from the USU, LGEA and depa - preferring to have operated for all these years, contrary to the Award, with ten employee representatives from distinct areas of the Council and a cursory note that the structure with the ten employee representatives “requires that at least one elected representative from unions party to the award.” How have they ever got away with that?

Not a happy place to work, chronic understaffing, a corporate approach to leaving positions vacant as long as they can, unprecedented levels of sick leave and industry-leading figures for staff turnover.

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