Human Services 13-hour-day rosters become industrial battleground

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Public servants could be required to work from as early 7am in the morning to as late as 8pm at night under what appears to be an ambitious bid by the Abbott government and the Department of Human Services (DHS) to expand the boundaries of what is considered a normal working day.

Communications to members by the Community and Public Sector Union   suggest that an opening offer on the table from the massive department includes an “increase to bandwidth” that could allow the agency to set roster hours in within a 13-hour window, potentially cutting off access to some shift allowances.

“DHS want to set your roster hours at any time between 7am to 8pm [Monday to Friday]. Service delivery hours can be determined by the Secretary and changed without consultation,” an internal CPSU post issued to members said.

Click here to view the existing 2011-2014 DHS staff agreement.

Human Services and its agencies, including Centrelink, have long operated frontline services and customer contact and access facilities outside the boundaries of the 9-to-5 workday, especially in times of crisis or emergencies ‑ with allowances acting as both compensation and incentive to perform irregular hours.

Although many public servants, especially parents are often happy to either work start earlier of later to help manage the demands of school and childcare pick-ups and drop-offs, the prospect of having widened roster start times potentially mandated rather than negotiated is unlikely to win many fans on the office floor.

Many federal agencies have irregular or around-the-clock shift requirements because of the nature of functions – for example Customs, Defence and other essential services – which have well-established protocols in terms of fatigue management and shift remuneration.

However the potential for savings on running costs by pruning the threshold for the application of allowances or other extra payments has long been an obvious and tempting avenue for both public sector and private employers looking to maximise efficiency.

Although DHS staff are frequently characterised by sections of the media as well-paid bureaucrats in secure and cushy Canberra office jobs, the reality for many frontline staff at agencies like Centrelink is that they are required to deal with people who are in crisis, hostile or have difficult problems and issues on a daily basis.

Pay scales at DHS are also often more modest compared to more prominent policy portfolios.

At the same time, as one of the biggest departments in the Australian Public Service in terms of headcount, DHS is logically regarded as one of the key battlegrounds for the CPSU in the present enterprise bargaining round.

Despite recently being less overt about its tactics with DHS, the CPSU is understood to have told its members that the union is simply not prepared to start negotiations based on an offer that is underpinned by the dilution of entitlements and conditions in the next enterprise agreement.

That means that the CPSU is more than likely to stick to the present agreement as its starting point for talks because it essentially has nothing to gain or offer its members by ceding ground.

DHS, for its part, is holding firm on the position that every one per cent pay increase per year “equates to around $181 million over the three-year life of the new agreement.”

“We are exploring every possible option in developing the new agreement but it is important to remember the current proposals are still being actively discussed,” said DHS General Manager, Hank Jongen.

Part of the issue for all agencies in negotiations with staff is that the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) has issued a bargaining framework that essentially offers public servants nothing in in terms of a pay increase – including adjustments for inflation – unless there are agreed increases to productivity.

How that productivity is defined, and by whom, is now set to become the key area of negotiation.

Mr Jongen said DHS was “negotiating a new agreement in accordance with the bargaining framework’’ issued by the APSC in March.

“A draft agreement, which includes a range of options that comply with the bargaining framework, has been provided to the bargaining representatives – including the CPSU – for consideration,” he said.

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