The Tax Office did not obstruct staff rights to request work from home arrangements in the pandemic but was trying to see through a period of "attack of COVID" in moving employees to large-scale remote working, a lawyer for the agency has told the Federal Court.
However a barrister for a union representing public servants told a court hearing on Tuesday the Australian Taxation Office published a guide to COVID working from home policies that hindered staff from requesting remote working arrangements under their workplace agreement.
The Australian Services Union, which represents tax officials, alleges the ATO breached workplace laws by calling staff back to the office during the pandemic without the notice periods required under the agency's enterprise agreement.
The ASU's lodged an application to the Federal Court to find the Commonwealth, the ATO and four of its senior executives breached the Fair Work Act in the way they organised its COVID-19 working from home arrangements between March and July 2020.
Malcolm Harding, appearing in the court for the union, said the Tax Office published a guide for staff that came to set the conditions for working from home during the pandemic, and hindered the rights of staff to access work from home arrangements under a clause in their enterprise agreement.
Paul O'Grady, appearing for the Tax Office, said the agency had formed its working from home guide in response to the "buffeting" circumstances of the initial stages of the pandemic, when it was uncertain whether the nation would enter lockdowns.
Mr O'Grady said the ATO acted to protect staff from COVID by moving them to work from home arrangements by the thousands, while also balancing the need to deliver services and maintain public confidence in the government and economy.
The enterprise agreement's clause on working from home applied to the individual arrangements of employees balancing their personal and professional commitments, he said.
Mr O'Grady said the clause did not deal with a situation where staff had to move at a large scale to work from home arrangements in response to the COVID pandemic.
"It's not about a particular individual employee having to rebalance their home commitments and their work commitments, from having been in a position where they've had certain arrangements put in place for a period of time," he said.
"It's about seeing through the period of attack of COVID."
The workplace agreement did not prevent the tax commissioner Chris Jordan from issuing a lawful and reasonable direction for an employee to work from home, Mr O'Grady said.
"One would have thought that the commissioner would be on pretty solid territory in the event that a site is hit by a COVID outbreak, and he has to do something to preserve the health and safety and wellbeing of all the employees, and can issue a direction that they work from home."
The hearing continues.
Doug Dingwall is The Canberra Times' Public Service Editor. He writes about government and federal politics, and edits The Public Sector Informant. He has an interest in integrity and industrial relations. Previously he worked at The Examiner in Launceston, where he won a Tasmanian Human Rights Award in 2016 for his reporting. Contact him on email@example.com
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