30 March 2020

APS Commissioner says working from home should be "a priority"

| David Murtagh
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The APSC has released guidelines recommending public servants work from home due to COVID-19. Photo: File.

Public service bosses have been told APS staff should start working from home “as soon as practicable” in response to COVID-19, in line with a recommendation tonight from Prime Minister Scott Morrison that people should stay home unless they “cannot work or learn remotely”.

The advice was issued by Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott who said that every public servant who can work, should work, and that wherever practicable, public servants should work from home, subject to the decisions of agency heads.

But Mr Woolcott did not issue a directive to all departments and agency heads, despite mounting calls for the APS Commissioner to do so.

Last week the Community & Public Sector Union pushed for clear guidelines from the APSC on work from home arrangements, as well as arguing “that any leave relating to COVID-19 absences should be paid leave and employees should not be asked to use annual leave or long service leave”.

The advice this weekend came with the understanding that for operational reasons some frontline staff will be unable to work remotely. However, if working from home is not possible, agencies must ensure staff working in office environments are adhering to social distancing principles, and following the latest health and hygiene advice from the Department of Health, and the Chief Medical Officer.

“Agency heads have always had the flexibility for employees to work at home subject to operational requirements,” Mr Woolcott said.

“But current circumstances mean as soon as practicable, agency heads should facilitate their staff working from home where possible”.

The decision of whether employees work in their usual office environment, a different office environment, or from home, remains a matter for the head of each APS agency, but Mr Woolcott said working from home is a priority due to the current “extraordinary times … where the Australian Public Service is essential to keep Australians safe and to deliver services for the Australian people”.

“Our focus is on both employees’ health and wellbeing, and importantly the continued delivery of critical public services”, he said.

In an effort to mobilise the broad skills of the APS, earlier last week Mr Morrison signed a determination asking agency heads to facilitate the fast movement of staff between agencies to perform critical functions.

In response, the APS Workforce Management Taskforce was established to manage the movement of the APS staff across departments and agencies.

According to the APSC, “employees must be prepared to assist in whatever way is required and are not to be stood down”.

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Is it consistent with WHS legislation to compel APS staff to work if they are not essential? Managers appear to have widely differing interpretations of “essential.

Compel them to work at the workplace, rather than home, that is.

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