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Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Public Sector Union calls out Home Affairs as putting staff at COVID-19 risk

With many organisations mandating work from home to assist with social distancing rules, the CPSU has shown the department is technologically ill-prepared to extend that right to its own staff.

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Screenshot: Chris Duckett/ZDNet

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has raised concerns over the federal government's inability to allow all of its office staff to work from home amid the COVID-19 outbreak, putting the health of many at risk.

Despite social distancing rules and forced business closures in place nationwide, leaving many unemployed as a result, the CPSU said the Department of Home Affairs is contemplating offering a section 24(1) determination or bargaining to staff. 

Under section 24(1) of the Public Service Act, the department secretary has the power to unilaterally vary the terms and conditions of employment for agency employees, which could result in staff hours potentially being reduced.

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"It's hard not to be deeply concerned about the department's actions and timing of this given so many workers are focused on protecting our community and preventing the spread of COVID-19, while looking after their own health," CPSU wrote. "Understandably members are currently focused on these matters as they change day by day."

The CPSU also highlighted how the government department is ill-prepared for its people to work remotely.

"The department has network capacity for about 10,000 people to work from home but does not have enough equipment for that many people to actually work from home," it said.

"Priority is being given to workers doing essential work and those identified as at high risk of COVID-19 (as per Dpt Health guidelines)."

Similar concerns have been raised with Services Australia staff, with people working at service centres being bombarded with in-person visits from those who have been unable to access the online myGov portal to sign up for income assistance.

"In this time of crisis, the Morrison government needs to be providing clear and certain advice that there are other ways to engage with government services. This is critical to enforcing social distancing and flattening the curve," CPSU said.

"To date, there has been a complete failure from the government to provide information to the community about how to engage with government services -- this must be resolved immediately."

The Australian government on Tuesday praised the launch of the Australian Business Continuity online resource centre, which provides tools aimed at supporting the continuity of Australia's small-to-medium businesses amid closures and advice on how to best use teleworking services.

The hub was developed by the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) in partnership with Microsoft, Cisco, ServiceNow, Adobe, Telstra, Google, Facebook, SAP, Salesforce, and others.

"This is just another example of how our business community -- in this case the tech sector -- is stepping up to help other Australian SMEs navigate the unprecedented challenges of coronavirus," Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews said.

"Working remotely is foreign to many businesses but is now essential as they practice social distancing and I encourage all businesses to explore the new hub and see how it could help them make it to the other side of this outbreak."

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