APSC tweaks advice as workplaces and unions grapple with Omicron outbreak

By Jackson Graham

Friday January 14, 2022

The budget is simply silent on public sector wages. (Adobe/daqroad)

The Australian Public Service Commission has tweaked its advice on working from home and offices for agencies and departments managing workforces during the Omicron outbreak. 

The APSC changed a circular on Friday to all APS employers amid growing calls from the main public sector union for the government to provide consistent and updated advice. 

The APSC advice remains that agency heads are responsible for making COVID-related decisions affecting their workforces based on relevant government and health advice. 

But previous directions from the commission that employees should return to workplaces where there was limited or no community transmission have since been removed. 

“Given the emergence of new COVID variants, agencies should remain flexible in responding and adapting to changes in such advice,” the APSC now says. 

“A COVID-safe return to usual workplaces should consider individual circumstances and the epidemiological environment and include a risk assessment with appropriate controls in place.” 

The advice highlights that for operational reasons some employees will need to attend their usual workplace, while for others working from home “may be a suitable option”.

It also states that “in principle” agency heads should return employees to their usual place of work “as soon as it is safe to do so” while adding this must be in line with government policy and health advice from the Commonwealth and states and territories. 

Advice for agencies to assess their workplaces to ensure they are COVID-safe remains the same. 

Departments and agencies have faced questions about whether rapid antigen testing will be a requirement in workplaces for employees who cannot work from home. The union has called for agencies to provide the tests freely to staff for work purposes and to offer paid leave for testing.

The APSC’s latest advice says individual agency heads are responsible for their agency’s approach to supporting employees to get tested for COVID-19 and screening in their workplaces. 

“This should be in line with government advice, state and territory public health orders and guidance published by the Therapeutic Goods Administration,” the advice says.

Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Melissa Donnelly wrote in a letter to public service minister Ben Morton on Wednesday that “the absence of clear and comprehensive advice” about working from home arrangements was bringing unnecessary challenges and leading to inconsistencies. 

The union has also called for “all steps” to be taken to support working from home arrangements, and for a positive RAT result to be proof for public servants to take leave if necessary. 

“Given the significant changes in the risks posed by the Omicron variant current government guidelines, current COVID-19 protocols, response plans, and return to work plans must all be reviewed by agencies,” Donnelly said.

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