"The morale is just shot."
Telephone operator Katrina Hill describes the demeanour of the estimated 125 casual and part-time staff at the Police Assistance Line and Online Response Centre (PAL/OLR) in Ballarat, who were told on Thursday they will not be getting work in the foreseeable future.
She and her co-workers were issued with documents by their employers Serco and the state government detailing how to claim Centrelink benefits and access financial counselling, as part of a briefing on 'roster changes and reduction in available shifts'.
In contrast to the first round of retrenchments in August where staff were informed by Serco 'there will be a requirement to reduce our staffing levels', remaining casual employees have been told they have not been laid off, but rather there is 'no work for them'.
The Courier understands the change in language was directed by the state government, furious at the way staff reductions were handled previously.
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Ms Hill and other staff are coming forward to speak about their treatment at the centre, which was opened in July by police and emergency services minister Lisa Neville.
At that time, Ms Neville said the state government made a "deliberate decision to invest in jobs in Ballarat."
"We know that often with regional employment and staff there is loyalty and people stay for the long term," the minister said in July.
We wish we had a crystal ball; we don't know what's going to happen.Counsellors provided by Serco to employees
Just four months on, the loyalty of staff is being sorely tested as the promised 'long term' work evaporates before Christmas.
When the jobs were offered through workplace providers originally, it was stipulated there would be a minimum of 15 hours per week of casual work available.
The Courier has spoken to over a dozen casual and part-time employees, all of whom say there is rarely more than one hour a week being offered now.
Instead any vacant shifts are being given to full-time workers, who have also been asked to consider moving to part-time work.
- "The news is fairly depressing, especially for casuals."
- "Serco are giving the casual workers no other option but to quit as they are no longer giving them shifts, but not technically firing them so they cover their asses due to the last backlash they got."
- "For two weeks now casuals have not had any shifts rostered and are causing so much stress in the workplace that people are now quitting because of it."
- "Serco has decided that all casual staff will not be rostered on until further notice: 'full time staff are more than enough to cover the workload'; 'we are still employed by Serco.' It was just a candy-coated version of telling us we are fired and trying to cover their asses at the same time. Entire meeting was a joke."
One staff member, a single mother, said she had made any number of attempts to fit into what Serco wanted with regard to flexibility, even to the extent of applying for other positions within the centre.
Ultimately, she said the workplace was suffering from a desperation to achieve call quotas that simply didn't, and couldn't, exist.
"There was a whole lot of this ... a lot of pressure, but it's paved over with this 'everybody's really happy in this environment; we're really a team,' but it was a false sense ... it was like suffocating, a suffocating atmosphere."
"In fact it was clear that people were setting themselves up to survive. It was, 'you're going to get in the neck before I do'; and that information was delivered to us as the pressure was mounting. The rules kept changing every day. If something went wrong, we were meant to report the name of the floorwalker supervising us, and I was not going to do that while I was trying to cling to my one shift a week."
In a statement, police minister Lisa Neville told The Courier the government insists the call line will grow and succeed, and that she will meet with Serco next week 'to increase demand for PAL/OLR services including increasing community engagement and increasing referrals of non-urgent matters from police stations.'
"Service demand for PAL/OLR, in particular uptake of the online reporting portal, has increased since commencing state-wide in July, however total call volumes remain below estimates causing under utilisation of staff and a limited number of shifts for casual employees," Minister Neville said.
"We made a deliberate decision to locate PAL/OLR in Ballarat to support jobs in regional Victoria and we committed to creating 200 new jobs when this service hits full capacity. This service is not going anywhere. It will only continue to grow, meaning more shifts will come online for both permanent and casual employees which will ensure work becomes more consistent for all PAL/OLR employees.
"Victoria Police are working closely with Serco to support employees and their unions with regard to staffing hours while demand remains inconsistent. As part of this commitment, Serco has commenced consultations with staff and unions today around the next rosters that will commence on 9 December.
We anticipate there will be few casual shifts available with increased utilisation of permanent staff.Serco
"This approach is designed to ensure permanent staff have regular hours, including increasing weekend shifts when requested by employees. There are no staff reductions as part of this consultation, however the number of available casual shifts will continue to be limited.
"I will meet with Serco next week to ensure that everything is being done to continue to increase demand for PAL/OLR services including increasing community engagement and increasing referrals of non-urgent matters from police stations. An additional advertising campaign will also commence in the coming weeks to further increase community awareness of the service."
In a separate statement, a Serco spokesperson said the company was committed to serving Victorians through the new Police Assistance Line & Online Reporting Service.
"This means having the right amount of people with the right skills at the right time to meet customer demand," the spokesperson said.
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"Serco is proposing adjustments to rosters for its permanent staff at the Ballarat Centre. This proposed roster change provides for better utilisation of our permanent workforce to meet customer expectations. In this change all current casual roles will be retained and casuals will continue to be provided shifts based on workload requirements. But we anticipate there will be few casual shifts available with increased utilisation of permanent staff.
"From 14 November 2019, there will be a consultation process to enable all affected staff to provide comment on the proposed changes. Suggestions and preferences from impacted individuals will be carefully considered in order to achieve the best outcome.
"Serco and Victoria Police will continue to work together to identify potential opportunities for additional work that could be efficiently handled by the Serco team at the Ballarat Centre."