Vindicated worker pays a high price

IT’S a greeting you’d expect from a man maybe 10 years older. 

The feeble handshake, the twisted fingers, the softly-spoken acknowledgement.

He spends his days “not doing much at all”, waking late each morning, sitting on the couch and going to sleep.

His nights are disturbed by angry and frustrated thoughts so he turns the radio on for some relief.

His bright red “proud to be union” T-shirt is a reminder of the happier place he once occupied and the struggles that followed.

For Gary Lucas it’s also a sign that justice can sometimes prevail.

He admits he has mixed emotions now that Community Connections Victoria Limited (CCVL) is being officially wound up.

The social welfare agency occupied nearly nine years of his life when he was employed as a housing advocacy officer and financial counsellor. 

On one hand, he worked with some good people and felt like he was making a difference. Conversely, he later won a settlement for alleged victimisation and discrimination by senior management.

And recently, the 61-year-old was notified that he had won workers’ compensation after a medical panel found he was suffering a “major depressive disorder with features of melancholia” and that his employment at CCVL was a “significant contributing factor”.

"I used to love reading, but now I find it hard. Anything thicker than a newspaper is a challenge.”

Mr Lucas believes he was good at his job: “Other agencies used to ring me for advice. It was the best role I ever worked in and I really enjoyed it.”

But things started going pear-shaped in 2008 when scheduled pay rises were delayed and he was asked by fellow workers to help negotiate a new enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA).

CCVL staff had operated under one EBA but management decided to split it into three agreements to cover practitioners, residential care staff and administration staff.

“It was divide and weaken,” Mr Lucas said.

“I’ve always been a member of the union wherever I’ve worked. When I started at Community Connections there were only three union members. That went up to 47 when the pay rise never came through in 2008.”

Staff rallied outside CCVL’s Koroit Street offices as the EBA negotiations stalled. 

Emails began to circulate inside as managers claimed disgruntled staff did not care about their clients and were trying to bring the agency down.

Mr Lucas was becoming increasingly frustrated. Working 10-hour days, he would often wake with worry at 4am and head to the office in an attempt to get on top of things.

He told the medical panel he thought the organisation “was out to get him” and he realised things could not continue.

In March 2009, he went on sick leave due to stress. In the following months he returned part-time, but the problems with management were still festering.

During another period of sick leave in November, his mother fell ill and he suddenly found himself in Geelong when it was discovered she needed major heart surgery.

He was told to return to work for a November 20 disciplinary meeting because the CEO claimed Mr Lucas had allegedly threatened and defamed him.

Mr Lucas refused to attend, saying he had a medical certificate and was more concerned about his mother’s health than anything else that might be happening at that time.

“My daughter then brought a letter down to say I’d been sacked and the termination was effective November 25.” Mr Lucas says he was devastated. “It wasn’t good as I was under a fair bit of stress.”

He later won an unfair dismissal claim against CCVL. He also won a Workcover payout of about two years’ wages and a further settlement for alleged victimisation and discrimination by Community Connections senior staff.

Today, Gary Lucas continues to live in Koroit under the care of his wife Carol, who does much of the work around the home and their few acres.

He has lost his concentration, no longer feels safe and he worries.

“I used to enjoy going to Port Fairy for a game of golf and I got to the races occasionally. I used to love reading, but now I find it hard. Anything thicker than a newspaper is a challenge.”

He was on the board of the South West Trades and Labour Council but stopped going to meetings at Portland. “I don’t drive any more.”

But he has plenty to look forward to with the impending birth of his seventh grandchild in February and the support of former staff mates.

They gathered in Warrnambool on Wednesday night to signal the demise of an agency which had humble beginnings back in 1991 with 30 staff and $1.5 million in funding to run five programs.

By 2012, it had expanded across the south-west, had an operating budget of $11 million, 170 staff and more than 40 programs.

But that all came crashing down after staff complaints stemmed a series of investigations and service reviews by government departments and agencies in 2011 and 2012. They revealed serious and grave concerns about client care, breaches of service agreements and the administration of money.

Funding was withdrawn, programs such as foster and residential care were awarded to other agencies and the majority of staff were made redundant.

Melbourne-based agency OzChild came to the rescue with emergency cash for redundancies and to take over the few remaining CCVL programs under a federal funding deal.

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