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Injured Telstra linesmen stuck after being told to do job against doctors' orders

Christopher Bell says he can only sit down for 10 minutes at a time. (Supplied)

Service technicians who sustained permanent injuries at work claim Telstra is pushing them into unsuitable jobs so the company can avoid redundancy payouts.

After decades in the field doing manual labour, Barry Williamson and Christopher Bell say being required to do a call centre job is extremely distressing.

A Telstra spokesperson said they are currently recruiting internally for "virtual service tech roles, where people with field skills connect with customers to assist them with their services and faults inquiries".

"These are types of enquiries and issues that our field staff are used to dealing with in person but now they're able to assist our customers without the need to physically attend premises," the statement said.

"We also ensure our people are trained and supported to perform the work."

Lawyer Angela Sdrinis, who is acting on behalf of half a dozen injured Telstra workers, said the men are not fit for the proposed role.

"This group of workers which I represent have all made very serious efforts to return to work and remain in work notwithstanding chronic and serious injuries," she told Virginia Trioli.

"They've either been offered, or pressured, to return to work in these call centre jobs or have been told, 'Well, we don't have anything for you, we are sending you home on sick leave or you need to start looking for work outside of Telstra'."

'We are not computer workers'

Mr Williamson started working for Telstra in 1989 and sustained several injuries to his shoulders during years of carrying equipment, digging holes, running cabling, and using ladders.

After being taken out of field work due to his injuries in August 2016 Mr Williamson worked in two positions, Communications Technician assessment and complaints field work, which he said were appropriate for his skill-set and physical condition.

To be taken off investigating complaints and told he was required to do computer-only work at the start of 2020 was shocking.

With such limited computer literacy, Mr Williamson fears he is being set up to fail if he were to start working in the call centre.

"I can't type that quickly," he said.

"I physically can't do it, I can't even sit in a chair that long."

In medical reports Mr Williamson's clinicians have said his shoulder injuries prevent him from doing anything over one hour a day at a computer keyboard.

After 30-years serving the company Mr Williamson said he can't believe this is how he is being treated.

"These are guys who have basically broken their back for Telstra over the years," Mr Williamson said.

"I'm 63, I just want to keep doing meaningful work. If there is no work, Telstra should medically retire me or make me redundant."

'Only one job available'

Christopher Bell started working for Telstra in 1994 as a field services construction repairer.

In 2015 Mr Bell sustained a back injury after his feet became tangled in copper wire, causing him to trip and land awkwardly after he jumped down some stairs.

The resulting bulging disks took him out of his physical work as a telecommunications installer; over the last six years he has been doing other 'suitable work' including maintenance, public liability complaints investigations and desktop audits.

Now Mr Bell claims he has been told "you'll be taking forced sick leave, we've only got one job available to you and that's in the call centre."

The situation with work has been incredibly distressing for Mr Bell, who is in constant chronic pain.

"I'm not trained in that technology, I've never done call centre work and it's highly stressful," he said.

Despite several medical opinions that the call centre roll is not suitable for Mr Bell in his current situation, Telstra has determined nothing prevents him from working as a 'virtual technician'.

Find suitable work, or pay compensation

Ms Sdrinis said the call centre jobs are "completely unsuitable" for her clients.

"Or if that's no longer possible for reasons which we don't completely understand… medically retire them."

"[Currently] these workers exist in a sort of no man’s land."

In a statement to the ABC Telstra said: "we currently have a small number of former field techs with previous experience that can't return to their old roles but have the skills and experience to talk to customers over the phone about service problems, as well as undertaking related administrative tasks."

"They don't have to attend offices or centres to do this work," the statement said.

"We will set them up in their own homes so that they are able to work in ways that support them and are flexible."

Mr Bell's case is being prepared to go before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Mr Williamson's case is currently before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

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