The WFH deal that challenges the future of office culture

Working from home rights are shaping up as a battleground for the Albanese government as its 150,000-strong workforce pushes for a pay deal that could set the bar for Australian office culture.

The Community and Public Sector Union is demanding the Commonwealth public service – one of the largest workforces in the country – be given the unlimited flexibility to work from home, saying the pandemic has changed the landscape on workplace rights.

The union representing Commonwealth public servants is calling for unlimited working from home rights.Credit: iStock

The Australian Council of Trade Unions also wants bosses to pay both casual and permanent staff who are sick with COVID-19 to stay away, and give office workers the flexibility to continue working from home as employers try to lure people back into the office.

The CPSU’s list of claims includes an ambitious bid for a 20 per cent pay rise over three years, including 9 per cent in the first year, as well as a month’s leave for public servants to undergo gender affirmation, in which they can take time to transition from one gender to the next.

CPSU secretary Melissa Donnelly said public servants were already deciding whether to stay or go based on whether their employers would accommodate them working from home.

“It really is a new frontier in what employees want in their working life,” Donnelly told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in an interview, adding their claim had the potential to “set the standard” around working from home rights.

CPSU secretary Melissa Donnelly said working from home was the “new frontier” in workplace rights.Credit: Louie Douvis

“The experience of COVID has shown just how effective many APS employees can be whilst working from home.”

Australian Public Service deputy commissioner Peter Riordan – who will be trying to reach common agreements with all federal agencies – said he was committed to bargaining for a fair and affordable pay increase with staff.

Regarding working from home, Riordan said, “we need to consider common conditions and their impact on an agency’s operational requirements. Agencies have service delivery obligations on behalf of the Australian community and not all types of flexibility is suitable for all roles.”

The National Tertiary Education Union is negotiating with universities across Australia to lock in work-from-home rights, after having secured the condition at Western Sydney University, while the Finance Sector Union is trying to hammer down similar conditions with banks.

In a campaign launched over summer, the ACTU raised soaring living costs as a reason to keep working from home as white-collar unions push to bake the right into their next pay deals, while employers are warning against “mandating” such arrangements.

Australian Industry Group head Innes Willox said many employers continued to offer employees flexible work arrangements, including working from home. “We mustn’t, however, return to the ‘one size fits all’ approach of mandating such arrangements,” Willox said.

Gender affirmation leave is a workplace condition now offered to employees at ANZ, Suncorp, and ABC and SBS, and which the Commonwealth public service is also now pursuing.

Donnelly said the 30 days paid leave would help transitioning employees by allowing them the time off for necessary appointments, procedures and other supports. Riordan said this claim would be given genuine consideration.

Australia’s Chief Health Officer Professor Paul Kelly told a parliamentary forum last month he’d asked a subcommittee of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee to make indoor air quality a key priority for the next 12 months.

The latest federal government COVID-19 data shows nearly 4000 cases a day.

The federal government in September ended pandemic leave disaster payments that helped casuals and other workers without leave entitlements receive income while sick with COVID-19.

But ACTU secretary Sally McManus said employers still had a health and safety obligation to their workers who couldn’t rely on banked sick leave, adding it was a public health “control measure”.

“It’s a way of ensuring that people don’t come to work,” McManus said. “COVID isn’t the flu and there’s all the issues around long COVID, and so, for that reason, it’s a health and safety obligation.”

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