Public servants have been told to rush back to offices as federal departments bring forward the end of COVID work-from-home arrangements, in what the main public sector union describes as a "spooked and cavalier response" to Coalition government calls for a return to workplaces.
But Public Service Minister Ben Morton says the decision to bring public servants back to offices is a response to high vaccination rates and the ACT government's lifting of restrictions.
Agriculture Department staff in Canberra will return to the office building on Monday, about three months earlier than under previous plans to resume pre-lockdown arrangements in February next year, the Community and Public Sector Union says.
The Department of Education, Skills and Employment has also told staff to return to workplaces on December 6, in a departure from previous plans to transition back to the office.
Public service employers are speeding up the return to offices only weeks after Mr Morton said the Morrison government had a "strong expectation" of returning to the office and default working-from-home arrangements would be "a thing of the past."
The CPSU will fight the Agriculture Department's decision, saying it had failed to give staff enough notice to make care arrangements and was breaching the enterprise agreement.
On Friday, Mr Morton doubled down, saying the CPSU's response to the department's decision was "odd" and that he didn't want the public service to remain static.
CPSU deputy national president Brooke Muscat said the union had no choice but to lodge a dispute with the department.
"Return to office must be done in a steady and staged way. The original plan from the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment was just that," she said.
"But what we have seen over the last week is a spooked and cavalier response from a jelly-backed management, after the minister did a round of Canberra media last fortnight."
The decision to rush back to the office had left staff confused after the department had already published a plan for a staged return to take place in February, Ms Muscat said.
"This new direction has given workers less than two weeks' notice to return to offices, leaving many with no plans for caring responsibilities," she said.
"The department has failed to identify hazards in the workplace, make plans to minimise those risks, or consult health and safety representatives about the return-to-work plans, instead choosing to push its workforce into an unsafe environment just to curry favour with the newly-minted minister.
"COVID safety measures aren't just some industrial tape, they are real plans that mean workers, management, and the community are protected from exposure and transmission risks related to COVID."
The Agriculture Department told staff on Tuesday that from Monday, November 29 all staff other than those at higher risk of COVID, or who lived with someone who was, would return to their pre-lockdown working arrangements.
An Agriculture Department spokesperson said its revised return to office plans took into account the ACT government's decision to significantly ease COVID-19 restrictions.
Staff had been encouraged to discuss any flexible working arrangements required to support an earlier return to offices, the spokesperson said.
we should be talking between employees and employers about flexible work arrangements where productivity gains can be reached, absent of COVID.Ben Morton
A significant number of ACT-based staff had already returned to their pre-lockdown working arrangements and many staff had planned to return from December 1, the department said.
"Employees may request flexible working arrangements that change the hours, pattern or location of their work, and their managers assess their request taking into account operational requirements, the impact on the team and any personal circumstances behind the request (this includes caring responsibilities)," the spokesperson said.
"The department removing its requirement for employees to remain in lockdown working arrangements is not considered major change under the department's enterprise agreement."
Ben Morton said the CPSU's response to the department's decision to bring staff back to offices was "odd" and that he didn't want the public service to remain static.
"Flexible work will continue into the future, and I look forward to it continuing not on the basis of COVID but on the basis of discussions between employers and employees on how to best deliver results for the Australian people," he said.
"We should be returning to the office where safe to do so. I believe that we should be talking between employees and employers about flexible work arrangements where productivity gains can be reached, absent of COVID."
Mr Morton said there would be more flexible working arrangements compared to before the pandemic.
"People have discovered the benefits of working from home, and all we're asking is that we have a discussion about realising those benefits, as opposed to working from home being a default arrangement because of a pandemic," he said.
Education Department secretary Michele Bruniges on Thursday told staff they would have to return to the workplace on Monday, December 6 if local health advice permitted.
In an email to staff, seen by The Canberra Times, she said informal remote working arrangements established during the pandemic would stop.
"I recognise this is a departure from our proposed transition arrangements, but with restrictions easing in many states and territories and high vaccination rates within the community, it is my expectation that all staff now return to our usual workplaces."
Mr Morton earlier this month told The Canberra Times the government expected public service bosses to reconsider and bring forward return-to-office plans where safe.
Prior to the ACT outbreak, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged public servants around the country to leave the home office in a bid to help revitalise the nation's cities.
The shift to working-from-home arrangements began in March 2020 near the start of the pandemic but the peak was found by the Australian Public Service Commission in August 2020 when around 64 per cent of the APS was understood to be working remotely.
The Productivity Commission in September urged governments to "not fight" higher rates of working from home post-pandemic, saying both employers and staff stood to benefit from increased workplace flexibility.
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: