Penalty rates essential for families and services

Victoria’s ambulance service would likely collapse if penalty rates were abolished since no-one with a family could afford to do the job for its base rate of $56,000 a year.

That’s the opinion of eight-year paramedic Brett Adie who says the job’s unsociable hours make it extremely difficult for partners of paramedics to hold a regular job once they have children. Without penalties enabling members to support their families there would be an exodus of paramedics from the service, he says.

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Penalty payments take the ambulance paramedic’s top rate to $71,000. That is a 26.7% increase on the base rate.

“It’s a below average wage without the penalties,” says Brett, pictured above with colleague Amanda Mills. “Penalties put food on the table. It’s not for luxuries, it gets you by every week.”

“We would be in huge trouble if we lost penalties. I would be out of this job real quick. You would not have any ambos. People just would not be prepared to do this job with all its pressures. For me personally, penalties feed my kids.

“It’s very hard for people’s partners to have an income because our shifts are all over the place – four days on, four days off. You would not get anyone older than 25 able to do the job.”

Brett has been asked to coach his sons’ soccer teams, a role he would grab with both hands if only his shift work allowed it. That is the sort of sacrifice for which people need to be compensated.

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Penalty rates are back in the news because the Abbott government this week urged the Fair Work Commission to review their relevance.

Some businesses, such as the restaurant trade, seem to regard penalty rates as an out-dated imposition on business in a world that runs 24-7.

But United Voice members know that families rely on penalty rates to get by. That’s why shopping centre cleaner Jackie Petts, 63, has worked from midnight until 8am for the past four years.

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“I have done day shifts for years. I can’t survive on that money. That’s why I changed to night shift,” says Jackie. “I love the job. You have a sense of pride and you feel good when it’s all clean but without night penalties I just could not survive because I am still paying for my home.”

Without the night penalty Jackie is paid $17.49 an hour. With the penalty she receives $22.74 an hour, an extra $5.25 an hour, more than $190 extra. But it comes at a cost. A social life? “I don’t have one,” says Jackie.

More than 75 per cent of United Voice members work in areas where penalties apply. Our members are the backbone of society, performing tasks that touch the lives of Victorians every day.

Among those who depend on penalty rates for a living wage are security workers, bakers, cleaners, hotel, manufacturing and beverage workers. And workers at Crown Casino and the MCG receive a “rolled up rate” that encompasses penalties of 25 per cent to compensate for fluctuating shifts while that rolled-up rate also simplifies management of the pay system for employers.

For bakers like Andrew Beattie at Tip Top, who starts work most nights when most of us are thinking of bed, his hourly pay increases by 30% as a result. “I need it to pay my mortgage,” says Andrew.

“There has to be some compensation for the disruption to your family life. Night work takes away from your social life, from being with your family. This is the way the company has wanted it. I used to start work at 6am but they have pushed the starting time back to 11pm because they want the bread out earlier.”

Penalty rates are the price we all pay for fresh bread in the morning, clean and hygienic shopping centres and a functional ambulance system, among many other things. And for many working families they are the difference between managing and struggling.

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