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Episode 4: Working from home

1 Oct 2021

Working from home is a hot issue as the COVID pandemic continues. In this episode, we discuss the challenges of working from home, and ensuring that AHPs rights are upheld as they do so. We discuss the way some employers are using working form home as a way of cost-cutting. We discuss some recent challenges that our members have faced while working from home.


Transcribed by Lake Majstorovic

All information cited was accurate as of the time of recording (October 2021).

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Sarah Hathway: But I think it’s also exacerbated and highlighted a lot of issues that were there before the pandemic hit in terms of access to amenities. You know, are people coming to work unwell who should actually be staying home?

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Female voice-over: Welcome to the VAHPA Voice, the podcast for all Victorian Allied Health Professionals from physiotherapists to radiographers, occupational therapists to social workers. This is the podcast for you and all Allied Health disciplines.

Allied Health Professionals can no longer remain the forgotten workforce.

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Rjurik Davidson: Welcome to the VAHPA Voice, VAHPA’s podcast. Today’s VAHPA Voice is about working from home for Allied Health Professionals. And with me, I have got two of our VAHPA staff members. Would you like to introduce yourselves?

Sarah: Hi, everyone, Sarah Hathway, Lead Organizer for the hospital’s team.

Vivek Rajan: Hi, everyone. My name is Vivek Rajan, and I’m one of the Industrial Officers at the Member Response Team.

Rjurik: And I’m Rjurik Davidson, I’m the Research and Communications Officer. So today we’re talking about working from home, and I just wanted to start maybe share with you like… so this is a bit of a hot-button issue at the moment, working from home.

So I just want to ask, you know, what’s at stake?

Sarah: I feel there’s so much to it, beyond, you know, just access to work from home. But probably the most press– pressing issue in terms of what’s at stake is people’s health, contracting COVID. This is obviously being made a hot issue because of the pandemic that we’re in.

But I think it’s also exacerbated and highlighted a lot of issues that were there before the pandemic hit in terms of access to amenities. You know, people coming to work unwell who should actually be staying home, there’s a whole range of issues it’s exposed. But really, people’s health and wellbeing and the wellbeing of their families is probably the main issue at stake at the moment.

Rjurik: Okay, cool. So I mean, I noticed one thing that you mentioned, Sarah, there was a recently an article which suggested that, like, workers will consider taking a pay cut for working from home.

I did wonder if you want to just respond by w– what’s that… the response to that kind of an argument?

Vivek: Um, yeah, so– so I’d say that it’s probably complete nonsense. Because when– when you really look at, um, working from home, it’s an opportunity for the employer to defray a lot of their operating costs as well, which will be taken up by the employee in their home. They’re, you know, paying for their own internet, their own utilities while they’re in there, and that reduces the running costs for the employer in the workplace.

Yeah, I think the messaging from the unions has been pretty clear where the ACTU, as of last week, adopted a working from home charter, where they basically have advocated for, you know, equal pay, and no out-of-pocket expenses for workers fulfilling their duties from home.

Rjurik: [Hums thoughtfully] I’m gonna jump ahead to one of the questions that we thought we might talk about a bit later, because it seems to come out of that, which is what the future looks like. Like, the question of the future of the workforce.

Because, I mean, this– this sort of gets to the whole question of the future of– of life under COVID, as well, doesn’t it? Because at some point, I mean, we’ve got the roadmap for coming out of lockdown, and so on.

But what do you guys think about what working is going to look like in the future? And particularly say, for Allied Health Professionals? I mean, do you think things are going to change a lot? Do you think we’re going to go back to what we’re– what we’re used to?

Sarah: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. And, you know, none of– none of us have a crystal ball, but there’s certainly been a lot of guessing and projections in terms of what’s going to happen, particularly around office-based workers.

So I think there’s been some pretty big companies come out, such as some of the call centres, Telstra, you know, saying we’re never gonna go back to how things were, this is the new normal. And I think, you know, just going off what Vivek said before, I think a lot of them have cottoned on and realized, hey, we’re actually saving money by having some of our employees working from home

In the health space, it’ll be interesting. I’d hazard a guess and say that a lot of people get into the health field because they want to work with people. And generally that would be you know, face-to-face, hands-on treatment of people.

I mean, obviously, we’ve– we’ve put some restrictions around that at the moment, you know, in terms of COVID, and doing consults and that kind of thing via telehealth, but it’s had a really mixed response from members, to be honest, so.

Um, and we’ve had all the peaks and troughs of COVID. But at times, I’ll be contacted by members saying, oh, we’re feeling really frustrated, because we’re still being told to see patients face-to-face for routine treatment, and we don’t feel like this is really important at the moment, and, you know, it’s a risk we don’t need to be taking.

And then conversely, I’m hearing from members saying we’re sick to death of having to fight to treat patients. And this is quite often because they’re reporting to nurses, or it could be nurses triaging risk for Allied Health, and they don’t understand the work that our members do. And our members are having to jump through 50 million hoops to argue no, this is urgent, and I need to go and treat this patient face-to-face.

So yeah, going forward, it’s going to be quite interesting as to how it all operates.

Rjurik: Vivek, did you have anything to add to that?

Vivek: Yeah, just off the back of what Sarah was saying. There’s just a lot– a lack of clarity about, um, I guess how the industrial relations, you know, legislation is going to keep up with this new model of work. It’s really been left in the hands of employees and employers to– to sort it out between themselves. So you know, that’s a… very dynamic space right now. And I expect that we’ll see a lot of changes across the next 12 months.

Rjurik: Hmm, yeah–

Sarah: And if I can just– sorry, Rjurik. Just to add in here is the gendered elements, because we’ve just started having some discussions at VAHPA in terms of developing our own gender equality report, and this topic has come up.

On one hand, you know, there’s benefits around working from home. I think parents have a lot more flexibility, you know, for myself, I’ve been able to do more childcare drop-offs and pickups in the last 18 months than I did in the preceding 18 months just because I worked in Melbourne and commuted to Geelong. So that– that’s a positive.

But there’s also this concern, from a gendered perspective, that it’s pushing women back into the home. And if you look at the sectors largely that have been working from home to a large degree, it’s feminized sectors. So you know, the whole social and welfare sector are the elements of health. And so there’s that concern of what it means for women being relegated to the home both for work that’s paid and all the work that’s unpaid.

And, you know, and then some of the implications around safety and family violence. So, yeah, it’s– it’s a bit of a double-edged sword I feel, actually. And– but yeah, I think we need to be having more discussions around it.

Rjurik: Yeah. Well, I mean, so, here’s a personal question. We’re all working from home, how are you guys surviving? I’ve thought, well, let me go first, let me throw myself onto the fire of the question first, because I mean, I work from home and, you know, live alone as well.

And so I– I miss coming to the office a bit, you know, and seeing everybody because it obviously makes it harder, particularly when you’re doing communications and stuff to have, you know, the chats that you have in the office and of what’s happening and what’s going on and so on. And also, it can just be a bit lonely by yourself, living by yourself.

Um, how about you guys? How have you guys been going?

Sarah: Yeah, I think quite similar. I certainly feel that the role of organizing is very much a collective task, and we bounce a lot off each other in that office dynamic of, you know, how was that meeting, and what happened there, and you learn from each other.

So I guess, yeah, in that working from home environment, we’re really having to consciously make time for that, in terms of getting the team together and trying to carve out time of like, this is formal meeting time. And then occasionally just booking in 10 minutes just to like, talk rubbish, like you would in the tearoom at lunch, just to have that bit of social interaction.

So yeah, it is difficult, but then at the same time, if I’m being entirely honest, I have a bit of survivor’s guilt too. Because, you know, I’m glad I’ve still got a job. And then also, you know, I see some of our members on the frontline and I see you in head to toe PPE, and you know, my mum’s in that position too as a nurse, so I can see how tiring that is for them. So it’s like, as difficult as it gets at times, I’d you know, just also try and keep the whinging to a

minimum as well. But yeah, that’s just me.

Rjurik: Yeah, and you’ve got– you’ve also got a little three-year-old running around, building forts or doing something as well, right?

Sarah: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And, yeah, it’s interesting, sort of having Zooms with members and like almost having gateways into each other’s lounge rooms and you know, seeing each other’s kids.

And, yeah, I think it’s had, like, a real humanizing effect on everyone, because we’re all kind of at that same level as well.

Rjurik: How about you Vivek, are you going…?

Vivek: Yeah, pretty well, all things considered. And, yeah, just– just like yourself, and Sarah, I miss out on those incidental chats that we used to have in the office. And yeah, you’re right, we just, we just have to make a concerted effort to get those in these days.

But yeah, you know, I certainly don’t miss the commute in peak hour. And, you know, we can get a extra solid, uh, two or so hours of work in during [Laughs] in time that would have been spent traveling otherwise.

In terms of the Member Response side of things, I feel that I can squeeze more meetings into a day, because I’m not losing time traveling between different sites. But at the same time, you know, we lose that human contact as well. When we are representing members at discipline meetings and whatnot, you know, they can be quite distressing for the members, so it’s always nice to have that kind of, you know, that personal connection to be there physically, as

well, to offer that support.

And, you know, it’s– it’s not ideal having them there with– with management and HR and, you know, myself dialling in via Zoom. Yeah, you know, we’ve been finding ways to make it work.

Rjurik: Yeah, cool. Well, um, maybe we– we will be back in the office at some point, so, we can have those tearoom chats.

So, working from home features in VAHPA’s Log of Claims as well. So Sarah, did you want to talk about what we say about it there?

Sarah: Yeah, I mean, just briefly, so we did have work from home provisions in our Agreement, but it was specifically for the Royal Children’s and the Royal Women’s from memory. So it’s really just seeking to expand that entitlement so it is an entitlement for everyone.

At the moment, it’s quite tricky because the– the whole argument around work from home hinges on public health orders and how people are interpreting those public health orders. So there’s no real industrial entitlement at the moment around work from home provisions.

So you know, we’re arguing on the definition of, depending on what stage of lockdown we’re in at any given time, of what it means that if you can work from home, you must work from home. And if you can work from home, you should continue to do so, and– and all the stupid nuances of these words, when you really just want to say we’re in a pandemic, 80% of their work is being done on telehealth, just let them do it at home.

But yeah, I think it’s really important for us to get those protections in our next Agreement, particularly as we say when the whole future of work seems to be morphing and changing and– and having protections around that.

Rjurik: Yeah, just for the, um, listeners. So we’re talking about the public sector Enterprise Agreement Log of Claims. So the Enterprise Agreement negotiations are underway at the moment, so that’s where that discussions happening and what it’s about.

But we have a few… we’ve had some Member Response team cases, Vivek, about this issue. Did you want to mention those? Could you tell us about them?

Vivek: Sure. Um, so just off the back of what Sarah was saying, we did receive a number of queries prior to the most recent set of lockdowns around the middle of the year where employers were pushing for employees to return to the office.

Um, and again, there’s just this arbitrariness as well. And so that– that led to quite a few meetings as well about the interpretation of public health orders, and to what extent it applied. And we saw, you know, every reason under the sun to return workers back to the workplace, and often in a public hospital setting, which was quite concerning, You know, the recent set of lockdowns is just evidence of how quickly things can change in that space.

We’ve also received queries about workplace health and safety. So for example, you know, if an employee was in the office, and they’d had an ergonomic assessment, and it was deemed that they needed a sit stand desk or anything like that, that’s something that the employer would typically provide for.

But what happens when they’re working from home? Is the employer obligated to provide those same facilities to them at home? And you know, these are open questions because there is really no guidance. So it was really a process of negotiating with the employer and really making the argument that if work is being undertaken from home, the obligation to provide a safe workspace applies just as if they were working on site.

Rjurik: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.

Sarah: Just wanted to bring up the amenities question, too, because I think, you know, that’s really interrelated with the work from home issue. And I think, you know, makes the case for us, in some instances that, you know, the more people we have working at home because… just in a hospital environment, you can’t have one and a half meters between everyone because it’s a confined space and there’s so many people.

So we do have– um, just to give some, you know, collective examples of radiographer members or cardiac technologists who in between scanning patients would in normal times just quickly duck to the toilet, and then come back and scan the next patient. At the– at the moment, they’re in full head-to-toe PPE, they’d have to don and doff, and in between scans, there’s a line of like, 10 people for one toilet.

I mean, or, the other example I had the other day I had– I had a member, you know, pretty much in tears on the phone, because they– it was just sort of like the straw that broke the camel’s back. On top of everything else they were dealing with their work location had been shifted, they were having to cart all their personal belongings around the hospital because they won’t give them lockers. They were having to conduct confidential meetings from cleaning

cupboards and corridors in the hospital. You know, trying to find places to eat your lunch because we know that ventilation in tea rooms is a hot topic at the moment, but it’s also a problem in hospitals. So just that access to basic amenity and I think, you know, it goes back to the comment we made at the start that this was certainly a problem before COVID, but I think COVID just exposed– exposed a lot of these issues in hospitals.

Rjurik: Thank you both for your time today. We’ll be back with the next VAHPA Voice in the next couple of weeks, so, thanks again.

Vivek: Thanks Rjurik.

Sarah: Thank you.

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