Understaffed government workers scrambling at major airports

By Melissa Coade

Friday April 29, 2022

airport queue
Airport understaffing has created pressures on everyone. (dizfoto1973/Adobe)

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has warned that understaffing has created pressures for Home Affairs and Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) employees who are struggling in unsafe working conditions at airports.

Reports have emerged of airport officers being denied breaks on long shifts so they can process more passenger arrivals, as the CPSU claims it is common for teams of 15 to be down seven staff members to process hundreds of passengers. 

Since Australia’s international borders have reopened, the processing times at Sydney airport have blown out from 40 seconds to 6-9 minutes per passenger. According to the union, this delay is on account of staff working to a limited COVID roster and extra requirements to ​​complete checks of passengers’ vaccine status.

CPSU deputy president Brooke Muscat said the problem was another example of government agency understaffing.

“Since the borders have reopened, airport workers are struggling with massive workloads without adequate staffing and support,” Muscat said.

“The risks to worker safety are unacceptable. They’re working above and beyond their limits to make sure passenger and cargo checks are getting done, but it’s not sustainable or fair.”

Process problems – like the difficulty passengers have independently completing the Digital Passenger Declaration (DPD) – have also added to the workload of understaffed airport officers. Union members reported that up to 75% of passengers were unable to properly complete the digital declaration, which then required manual processing by a Home Affairs officer.

Airport workers from DAWE have also reported understaffing pressures, with those who work in arrival halls complaining about problems filling biosecurity officer vacancies and a lack of staff available to cover workers on leave.

“We need these departments to increase staffing and support to make sure workers, passengers, and our biosecurity are protected,” Muscat said. 

The union said the understaffing was exacerbated by an increase in workloads and was having a real impact on arrival checks, worker safety, and passenger delays.

Time-consuming infringement notices were also frequently not issued to passengers caught with prohibited plant and animal products, the union claimed, with the products simply seized and destroyed instead.

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