Tasmanian health workers told to pay back government’s $2,000 COVID bonus after incorrect payments

Tasmania’s Health Department is attempting to recoup a COVID bonus from workers it claims were ineligible for it and were paid by mistake, but a union is urging the staff to keep hold of the money.

The government announced $2,000 would be paid to health workers in installments on a pro-rata basis in recognition of their work during the pandemic, with broader public sector pay negotiations ongoing.

But an administration blunder has seen staff in nine areas start to receive the payment despite being deemed ineligible, including workers in Ambulance Tasmania communications, and some in public health services and mental health services.

They are likely to number “into the hundreds”, according to the Health and Community Services Union (HACSU).

At the same time, workers in five categories — including oral health, child health and parenting services — who were eligible for the payment have not been receiving it. They account for 3 percent of those eligible.

The department has put steps “in place” to prevent further payments to ineligible staff, and says it will work with individual employees to work out payment plans.

HACSU Tasmania assistant secretary Robbie Moore said the eligibility for the payments was too confusing, and mistakes were inevitable.

“We’ve advised employees who have been receiving the bonus not to pay it back, because we’re still pursuing for them to be included in the payment,” he said.

“We didn’t consent to this agreement because it was too hard to determine who was covered, it was very ambiguous. They were never going to be able to do it like this, they should’ve just paid it to everyone.

“It will cost them more to penny pinch like this.”

Staff have slammed the process in messages on departmental communications boards.

One staff member described it as “a diabolical and significant mistake”, and that it had caused “significant” harm due to ongoing employment uncertainty.

Another said they were “disappointed” that it was not framed as an apology, while others questioned how the department could recover payments that had already been taxed.

‘Human error’ blamed

The $2,000 bonus was offered at a time when the nurses’ union was holding rolling industrial action over workplace conditions.

It covers staff who worked in the eligible areas of the Department of Health between December 15, 2021, and July 31, 2022.

In a statement, the department confirmed that all eligible staff would receive the payment, and work was ongoing to recover money from staff who were deemed ineligible.

“For staff who received the payment in error, the department is working with them directly to arrange a payment plan. We apologize to staff who have been affected,” the statement reads.

“More than 97 per cent of eligible staff have received their full entitlement under the agreement … and it is anticipated that more than 99 per cent of eligible staff will have received their full entitlement by early this week.

“All payments will be made to eligible staff by December 31 as per the Frontline Health COVID-19 Agreement.”

The department is also replacing its payroll system, and said that processing about 10,000 bonus payments based on locations and time sheets had been “a complex and manual exercise”.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael Ferguson said the mistake was caused by human error.

“I understand that there’s potential that there’s been a level of human error by a member of the administrative staff in the Department of Health doing their best to make sure that everybody that’s entitled to this additional payment gets it,” he said.

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