Museum workers threatened with loss of special COVID-19 leave

A space exhibit in Sydney's Powerhouse Museum. Photo: smalljude / CC BY 2.0

After being assured their contracts would be honoured, customer service staff at the Powerhouse Museum and the Sydney Observatory have been told to accept redeployments to other customer service roles or lose out on special COVID-19 leave.

Visitor services officers (VSOs) had been assured of special leave after the venues’ temporary closure on March 23. Both are part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS).

Powerhouse management told VSOs on March 27 that temporary part-time and full-time contracts would be honoured and special leave would be provided to cover the duration of their contracts.

This meant VSOs would be paid for the duration of their contracts, albeit at a lower rate because of MAAS’ stated “changed business needs”.

This was later contradicted by Powerhouse management who said VSOs would not be entitled to special leave unless they accepted a redeployment package to Service NSW.

The directive was an effective blackmail of staff. The MAAS intranet COVID-19 information page said: “As an employee of the NSW government and, for the sake of the whole community, we encourage you to give these opportunities genuine consideration … if work opportunities can be provided and are refused without valid reasons, you may not be entitled to special leave.”

Even under “normal” circumstances, it is relatively normal for NSW government employees to be redeployed. And while many workers would be happy to help out, these are not normal times.

Staff are angry that they are being coerced to redeploy to roles in Services NSW that involve customer service and require taking public transport as far as Gosford and Parramatta.

Under present conditions, this involves putting workers and their families at risk. Many VSOs live with, and care for, family members and/or partners who are in the high-risk category for serious complications from COVID-19.

It is unfair that VSOs have been forced to make the impossible choice between protecting their health or being able to pay the rent.

The threat of losing special leave entitlements causes undue distress during what is already a stressful time.

To make matters worse, the staff who were offered redeployment were given very little time to make a decision.

One part-time employee was contacted by Service NSW on April 3 and offered a full-time role that was to start three days later. Then, just after 5pm on April 6, VSOs were informed that all redeployment offers to Service NSW had been taken. This is hardly fair on staff, who like everyone, are finding it hard to weigh up all the variables in a trying time.

The Public Service Association of NSW is supporting members who are refusing to be redeployed.

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