Tens of thousands of public servants at the Commonwealth's biggest department have been offered a pay rise of just under 1.4 per cent a year.
Bosses at the Department of Human Services were upbeat about the offer on Tuesday but the main workplace union says the proposal is a pay cut for many at DHS, which would see a typical worker hundreds of dollars worse off each year.
Managers at the department, which runs Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency, tabled their offer, which is conditional on longer working hours and a cap on the numbers of middle managers, on Tuesday morning.
It came as thousands of union members prepared for industrial action on Thursday aimed at forcing their bosses to the bargainng table after months of delay.
The basic offer to the department's 35,000 workers is a salary increase of 4.15 per cent over the three-year life of the new agreement, with increases of 1.5 per cent in 2015, 1.5 per cent in 2016 and 1.15 per cent in 2017.
Other conditions of the long-awaited proposal include an extra six minutes on the standard working day, an increase of normal working hours from 7am until 8pm, and a reduction in carers' leave entitlements.
Some workers will be entitled to an extra 0.5 per cent a year in "performance-based" salary advancement, irrespective of whether the management-to-staff levels are met.
In a statement on Tuesday, the department's general manager of communication, Hank Jongen, said the ratio of executive level to rank-and-file staffers, currently at about one manager to nine workers, was the key to the offer.
Mr Jongen told The Canberra Times that if the present balance could be retained throughout the life of the agreement, then the full 4.15 per cent would be paid.
"If we do not meet our workforce profile target ratio in either 2016 or 2017, staff would be entitled to a total general pay increase of 3.25 per cent over three years," Mr Jongen said.
"While the 2015 general pay rise of 1.5 per cent would remain unchanged, staff would be eligible for a pay rise of 1 per cent in 2016 instead of 1.5 percent, and 0.75 per cent in 2017 instead of 1.15 per cent."
But the pay offer was an immediate flop, with the Community and Public Sector Union's deputy national secretary Lisa Newman saying the offer was a pay cut that came with strings attached.
"Once again staff are being asked to accept a huge cut to their conditions and workplace rights in return for a pay offer that will see them go backwards over the next three years," Ms Newman said.
"And there are strings attached. The offer goes from bad to worse if the department can't sack enough people.
"The ratio of staff to managers is something that's entirely outside the control of your average Centrelink or Medicare worker and yet they are the ones who stand to lose if management fails to meet its target."
Mr Jongen said the cuts to carers' leave accruals from 18 days a year to 15 was aimed at cutting DHS's rates of no-shows, "which are among the highest in the public service".
"We consider this a genuine offer that meets the requirements of the government's bargaining policy, and we are committed to talking with staff in the coming weeks about the offer to gauge their feedback and views," Mr Jongen said.
"We have been talking with bargaining representatives – including the CPSU – about their suggested changes and questions, as well as working through the feedback our staff have provided through a number of channels."