The Australian Public Service Commission is resisting calls to issue a work-from-home directive for the public service despite the federal government urging as many workers as possible to work remotely.
The Community and Public Sector Union claims departments and agencies are actively blocking or unnecessarily delaying the implementation of remote working arrangements amid mounting anxiety among public servants about the workplace spread of COVID-19.
"[On Tuesday night] the Prime Minister told the nation that working from home should be strongly encouraged and undertaken where possible," CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly said, "We continue to deal with APS agencies dragging their heels implementing these arrangements. It is just shocking that they are ignoring this for their own workforce."
The union said the reluctance of many APS workplaces to allow staff to work from home was "reckless and short-sighted" and has called on the APSC to issue a directive to all departments and agencies to implement work-from-home arrangements "as broadly as possible".
The Canberra Times has been told that in some agencies there is a shortage of laptops that prevents many from being able to work from home, while other organisations are applying strict criteria to approving applications for remote work.
Public servants are worried that the blockages and delays could cost lives.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one bureaucrat told The Canberra Times that "everyone is very tense, anxious, and realising we are on the precipice of thousands of people dying".
"In two month's time it will be terrible to know that Canberrans died needlessly because the public service didn't encourage it's staff to work from home where possible."
In announcing on Tuesday night the latest suite of restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was "strongly encouraged to work from home where you can do that".
But the Public Service Commission said that there was "no APS-wide directive that employees should work from home or from their usual workplaces".
The APS Chief Operating Officers Committee, a sub-committee of the Secretaries Board, said that, "whether employees work in their usual office environment, a different office environment, or from home, will be a matter for the head of each agency".
The APSC said working from home was "not new for the APS" and in the current situation could be appropriate where such arrangements were already in place as part of business as usual; for staff at higher risk of COVID-19 or who are caring for such people; and as part of broader measures to improve social distancing at work, such as staggered or reduced staffing arrangements.
Organisations may also consider piloting work from home for part of their workforce as part of preparations for a possible move to widespread remote working "at some point in the future".
According to the APSC, agencies were already taking action to increase social distancing in the workplace, such as minimising face-to-face meetings, posting notices about meeting room maximum capacity and restructuring teams to cover contingencies.
It said that remote access was standard practice across the public service and organisations were "well placed to deploy technological solutions to assist during the COVID-19 pandemic", including information security.
But Ms Donnelly said even where organisations were reconfiguring their operations to reduce or eliminate physical public contact, they were still blocking staff from working remotely.
"We are seeing agencies such as the [National Disability Insurance Agency] and the [Commonwealth] Ombudsman moving all public interactions to phone but are blocking staff from remote work," she said.
The Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman confirmed it was reducing face-to-face contact in favour of phone and online services, but said it was not blocking staff from working from home.
"There are a number of staff who are currently working remotely," the office said. "We are taking every available step to keep our workplace safe, at the same time as facilitating working from home for an ever growing number of our staff."
Ms Donnelly said the CPSU was "calling on the Morrison Government to ensure all public sector workers who can, must be allowed and supported to work from home. We must flatten the curve, and this move is critical."
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