The Commonwealth public servants union has called on the Federal Government to make rapid antigen tests (RATs) freely available to staff amid concerns that an inconsistent response to the Omicron wave is hampering efforts to minimise illness and staff shortages.
CPSU National Secretary Melissa Donnelly has written to Public Service Minister Ben Morton urging the government to ease working-from-home arrangements.
Ms Donnelly says that while many APS agencies are now doing this, the absence of clear and comprehensive advice on this issue from government is making this harder than it should be and leading to inconsistent approaches across the APS.
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Late last year, Mr Morton said it was time for public servants to return to their offices, despite the pandemic not being over, evidence of the benefits of working from home, and that it was now a firm part of how agencies manage and recruit their workforces in a competitive jobs market.
Big departments and agencies such as Home Affairs and the Australian Taxation Office moved quickly to allow staff to work from home, but Services Australia only this week made the change after union lobbying.
“As a result of our advocacy, many APS agencies have put on hold plans to return to workplaces and reinstituted widespread working from home rights in affected locations,” Ms Donnelly told Region Media.
“There are some differences between agencies, roles and locations, and we’re working to ensure that working from home is made available as widely as possible. This will keep the community safe and limit the spread.”
Ms Donnelly urged Mr Morton to make RATs free and accessible for all, particularly frontline workers, and there should be sector-wide guidance on their use to ensure a consistent approach across the APS.
The CPSU believes agencies should provide RATs where they are required for work purposes or due to workplace exposure, and that a positive RAT result should be accepted as evidence for any leave that needs to be taken due to COVID. Moreover, they said staff should be able to take paid leave to get a COVID test and while awaiting results.
The union has also called on the government to provide paid leave for labour-hire workers if they contract COVID-19.
Ms Donnelly said employers needed to review their COVID protocols to ensure that staff are kept safe considering higher case numbers, changes to isolation and testing requirements, and new definitions of close contacts, which all increase the risk of workplace transmission.
She said current government arrangements for COVID-19 needed to be updated to take into account the new variant.
“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 to ensure they remain up to date and relevant to the elevated risks and current circumstances,” Ms Donnelly said.
The Australian Public Service Commission said working-from-home arrangements were in the hands of individual agencies as per last September’s Circular, but it was in the process of being updated and would soon be republished.
“Working flexibly, including working from home, has always been available to APS employees where agreeable between an employee and their manager,” the APSC said.
“Individual agency heads remain responsible for making working from home decisions in their agencies consistent with public health advice.”
The APSC’s survey on working from home is on hold but will resume next month, collecting data for the fortnight of 31 January to 11 February.