Workers at Services Australia have reported chaos and confusion as they received conflicting instructions from their managers about working from home arrangements over the last week.
On Thursday staff were told they would be provided with work-from-home arrangements if they were at higher risk from serious illness from coronavirus and to advise their manager if someone in their household was particularly vulnerable.
When asked by The Canberra Times, Services Australia did not provide its policy for staff working from home but said they were following the latest guidance from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee for essential workers in higher-risk categories.
"Where staff members are in the high-risk category, or who live with someone in this category, facilities are being made available so their work can be done from home, including call and processing work," spokesman Hank Jongen said.
The message to staff comes after a week of confusing and conflicting advice, where dozens of workers have told The Canberra Times they have been denied the opportunity to work from home, even if their role is not customer-facing.
In recent weeks Prime Minister Scott Morrison told any Australian who could work from home to do so, and on Sunday Public Service commissioner Peter Woolcott said that all public service agencies should move to working from home "where practicable".
Many public service agencies have resisted calls to allow staff to work from home, with technological and cultural barriers forcing staff into offices despite advice to do otherwise.
The approach to working from home is different between branches, teams, and offices in different cities. Some workers have been told they are not senior enough to be given a laptop, while others have been told a single laptop is available to a team of six people.
Services Australia did not address questions about laptops being available for staff to work from home.
Staff report resentment between some offices that are allowed to work from home and others that aren't, and one Canberra-based team was told they could no longer work from home after previously being told they could. Many said their managers didn't believe they would be productive if they worked from home, even if the technology was available.
Earlier this week chief executive Rebecca Skinner told staff they were all considered essential workers to be present in the office, not just those in call centres or shopfronts.
One staff member said she was staying in a motel because she could not risk bringing the virus home to her husband who was immunocompromised.
Services Australia staff in areas that have expanded staff numbers to deal with the influx of new JobSeeker payment applications say social distancing is not being practiced and there is a shortage of hand sanitiser available.
The main public sector union wrote to the agency weeks ago raising issues about vulnerable workers and coronavirus, and said it was pleased the agency had put in place measures for those with higher risk of contracting a serious form of the illness.
"The CPSU has been working with members in Services Australia and agency leadership for some time to ensure that vulnerable workers will be protected," Community and Public Sector Union national president Alistair Waters said.
"Services Australia will now allow those at higher risk of serious illness for COVID-19, working from home arrangements where possible, or paid miscellaneous leave until suitable duties can be provided.
"These are APS wide issues, that we have raised with the prime minister, the minister, and agencies. We see everyone taking these issues seriously."
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