Mixed messages regarding working arrangements during the coronavirus pandemic have left Australian Public Service employees, their union, and even politicians confused and concerned.
During a press conference on Tuesday night the prime minister encouraged the public to work from home. Then on Wednesday, he told 2GB that he had met with all Federal department secretaries and had given them “very clear instructions about how they have to be redeploying their workforces”.
Following reports of APS employees being told to work from their offices, a spokesperson from the Australian Public Service Commission told The Mandarin “there is no general direction for APS staff to work from home”.
“The prime minister has said that the government considers the APS to be an essential service which needs to keep working in order to keep Australians safe, and ensure that services are delivered to the Australian people,” they said.
“As such, the APSC has updated Circular 2020/1 to advise that where schools are open or arrangements for the children of essential workers are available, employees should make use of these facilities, or work remotely. Employees who choose not to send their children to school, and subsequently make themselves unavailable for work, may utilise their available leave credits.
“That same circular makes clear that employees who are self-isolating pending a diagnosis, or because they have a diagnosed household member, should work remotely; or if that is not possible, should be provided with paid discretionary leave. Such leave does not affect an employee’s existing leave credits.”
They argued the APSC was focussed on employees’ safety, but they would continue working and “be moved as required” to contain the spread of the virus and deliver critical services to the public.
“As the government considers the APS an essential service, there is no general direction for APS staff to work from home, however working from home arrangements are part of the suite of flexibilities being considered by agencies,” they said.
“Agencies and employees will consider what arrangements best suit the agency’s business needs, service needs and individual circumstances. Remote access is a standard practice across APS agencies and agencies are well-placed to deploy technological solutions to assist with management of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
But some agencies have reportedly been preventing staff from working remotely.
A call centre employee from Services Australia told ABC News they had not been “given the option to work from home”, and had not been practicing social distancing despite there being roughly 150 people in the workspace.
Another employee from the Digital Transformation Agency said they had been “made to come in” to the office, and repeated the APSC’s line on working remotely.
“We are being told this is as there is no government-wide directive to work from home,” they said.
The Community and Public Sector Union has also signalled concerns with the way agencies have been handling the situation.
“Right now, there are departments and agencies blocking working from home arrangements or unnecessarily delaying their implementation. This is reckless and short-sighted,” it said.
“It is time for the Australian Public Service Commission to issue a clear directive to all agencies and departments to implement these arrangements. Recalcitrant managers are putting our public sector workers at risk and putting at risk the public health measures governments are trying to implement.”
CPSU National Secretary Melissa Donnelly said some agencies have been “dragging their heels on implementing these arrangements”.
“The Australian Tax Office is ready to move most functions to remote work but are dragging their feet due to the mixed messages from the Prime Minister. Conversely, we are seeing agencies such as the NDIA and the Ombudsman moving all public interactions to phone but are blocking staff from remote work,” she said.
“Where services cannot close, social distancing must be enforced, even if this means moving workers or call centres to other buildings, nothing should be off the table.
“The CPSU is calling on the Morrison government to ensure all public sector workers who can, must be allowed and supported to work from home. We must flatten the curve, and this move is critical.”
According to ABC News, the union found the Social Services, Education, Infrastructure, and Health departments were not properly addressing concerns regarding COVID-19.
ACT chief minister Andrew Barr has also voiced concerns over APS employees working from offices rather than from home. On Wednesday he said he would be raising the matter with the National Cabinet.
Last week another spokesperson from the APSC told The Mandarin that employers were implementing “sensible rostering arrangements” in their workplaces, and were enacting business-continuity plans.
“At the agency level, arrangements include increased use of remote working, rostering arrangements and physical separation between employees. These are in addition to other sensible work practices, such as increased use of telephone and video conferencing, and structuring management teams to ensure contingency in the event of a confirmed or suspected case,” they said.
“Agencies are also putting in place mechanisms to support staff as working arrangements evolve in response to COVID-19.”
They also asserted that working from home for public servants “is not new”, and said agencies are “well-placed to deploy technological solutions to assist with management of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
A spokesperson from the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman told The Mandarin it has been reducing face to face contact by using online and phone services.
“In terms of remote working, there are a number of staff who are currently working remotely and with flexible working arrangements. We are taking every available step to keep our workplace safe, at the same time as facilitating working from home for an ever growing number of our staff,” they said.