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Many vulnerable, injured workers would be unjustly denied support or compensation under Comcare if the Federal Government’s proposed changes are passed by Parliament, a senior Slater and Gordon lawyer has warned.

The Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 was suddenly brought on for debate earlier this week (Monday, 24 November) by the Government.

Senior Comcare lawyer Rachael James said the Bill was seeking to open up the small Comcare scheme nationally by allowing employers to exit state schemes and save money and at the same time removing protection for injured workers.

“This change will leave just 44 national Comcare health and safety inspectors who are predominantly based in Canberra to manage compliance – this will create a huge gap in protection for workers, particularly those who work in regional areas,” Ms James said.

Ms James said the Bill would also abolish the jurisdiction of state health and safety regulators, meaning that employers would not have to comply with state health and safety laws, exposing workers to high and potentially deadly risks in the name of cutting red tape.

Workers currently under the Canberra-based Comcare include the Australian Federal Police, some Australian Defence Force Personnel (when not at war), Commonwealth public servants, and 161,000 employees in the private sector.

Ms James said people who cared about injured workers would be appalled that the Federal Government could ignore very substantial concerns about the Bill and seek to rush it through Parliament at the end of the year.

“This is bad policy and should be scrapped entirely,” Ms James said.

“This is a shocking way to treat workers who want nothing more than to work hard and return home to their families unharmed.”

Ms James said the Bill contained many harsh changes, including a proposal to open up the national scheme to allow employers to exit state workers’ compensation schemes and to self-insure.

“It will be a very easy cost cutting measure for employers – they will be able to exit their state WorkCover schemes and self-insure cheaply under Comcare,” Ms James said.

“They will be able to stop paying premiums to their state schemes and simply pay a much cheaper licence fee to the Commonwealth-owned Comcare.

“That will create funding shortfalls in state schemes, which could result in reduced benefits for those injured workers who remain.

“Workers whose employers move from state schemes to Comcare will also lose the common law rights available in that state.”

Ms James said an extremely harsh measure in the Bill was the exclusion of compensation for workers who had tragically died or been catastrophically injured at work and were alleged by their employer to be at fault.

“They will not be in a position to explain how the accident happened and as a result they and their families will be denied any form of support or compensation.”

Ms James said Comcare was the only workers’ compensation scheme in the country with no time frames on employers to make decisions about whether they would help an injured worker.

“An injured worker under Comcare can wait months, even years for a decision about whether they will receive benefits.

“And if the decision is wrong, an injured worker must appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) which is under-resourced and unable to cope with the current number of claims.

“There is no doubt that employers, including Commonwealth departments, will save a lot of money if benefits for the injured are abolished, but it will be the workers and their families who will bear the cost and be left to pick up the pieces.”

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