Departments prepare for public servants to work from home

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday March 16, 2020


Federal departments have been putting plans in place to help staff and the public as the coronavirus pandemic worsens, while the union representing the Australian Public Service has reminded employers to support staff in non-permanent roles.

Under its business continuity plan, the Department of Health has arrangements to allow staff to work from home when in isolation, a spokesperson told the Canberra Times.

“If work from home is not possible, miscellaneous leave with pay will be provided,” they said.

Over in the Department of Defence, public servants and Australian Defence Force members have been told they can work from home if they show symptoms or contract COVID-19. Other paid leave options are available for the isolation period if staff cannot work remotely.

Defence personnel who have had close contact with confirmed cases of coronavirus should self-isolate, while ADF members who develop symptoms must seek a medical assessment from their Defence Health facility.

“Civilian staff are instructed to contact their GP or a state-provided testing facility. These individuals will then be tested and managed under the direction of the public health unit with Defence providing support to staff and authorities as required,” a spokesperson told the Canberra Times.

Defence staff must notify their department ahead of any business or personal travel overseas. The department has been working with ACT and NSW health authorities to isolate and trace contacts in cases where ADF members have tested positive for the virus.

The Australian Taxation Office has reportedly asked employees who have been in contact with confirmed coronavirus cases to self-isolate and work from home where possible. Staff who have been in mainland China, Iran, South Korea or Italy, and officials who have been in close contact with a confirmed case, must isolate themselves for 14 days from the date of last contact.

A spokesperson told the Australian Financial Review the organisation has been sticking to the Department of Health’s advice, and has told employees that they should consult their doctor if they’re feeling unwell.

“Personal leave and alternative work arrangements are in place to support our employees if needed,” they said.

Meanwhile, Services Australia has also been working with other departments to ensure a coordinated approach to service delivery, and has plans in place to ensure staff and customers are supported.

The Community and Public Sector Union has called for government employers to pay all workers who have to take leave or work from home, and should not ask them to use annual leave or long service leave.

Assistant national secretary Michael Tull noted that many services rely on casual and contracted work.

“There are many essential federal public services — eg. NDIA, Centrelink, Tax , biosecurity and borders — that rely on workers in casual & labour hire arrangements. Those workers need the Govt to ensure they will be paid so they can self isolate,” he wrote in a tweet.

In a statement on members’ rights during the coronavirus pandemic, CPSU said it would continue discussions with the Australian Public Service Commission and government about its view that “paid leave should be provided to all workers undertaking APS work”.

It noted that the APSC has issued advice on leave types, including:

  • Individuals who have been exposed or are required to self-isolate should be allowed to work from home or provided with miscellaneous leave if this is not practical,
  • Individuals who contract the virus must take personal leave,
  • Employees caring for someone with the virus must take carer’s leave, but then must self-isolate (working from home or on miscellaneous leave) when their caring role is over but while they are still a potential exposure risk,
  • If schools are closed employees can work from home or access carers leave if this is not practical.

Public servants in the Northern Territory can receive paid “special leave” if they need to self-isolate. This also applies to rostered casuals.

In the ACT public service, those who need to isolate themselves should continue to be paid without needing to access leave entitlements, and managers should try to make arrangements for casuals to work from home.

Paid leave for casuals is discretionary, and “may be approved particularly where a casual works on a regular and systematic basis”. Labour-hire workers must follow directions to self-isolate.

The ACTPS said it would work with labour hire employers to assess potential for working from home and encourage wage continuity.

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