COVID-19

Why staff may stay working from home forever

The Sunday Herald Sun has been told legal advice prepared for the state government warned there may be no lawful mechanism to require workers to return to office desks – possibly changing the CBD forever.At least one major private company has also sought legal advice on getting staff back to the office.The latest occupancy data shows just one-third of city workers are back in offices.The CBD had an estimated weekday office population of 250,000 ­before Covid-19.The Sunday Herald Sun asked the government how many public servants had returned to offices and how many days a week they were working in the city but it refused to provide details on how many of Victoria’s 50,000 public servants were back in their office.Victoria’s working-from-home mandate lifted on February 25 but ongoing flexible working conditions mean workers are required to work only three days a week in the office.Sources in several government departments and agencies told the Sunday Herald Sun the requirement was being openly ignored.Some managers had advised staff they were not obliged to return to the office, sources said.A government spokesman said: “The requirement for the Victorian Public Service to return to the office a minimum three days a week ­remains in place.”A Department of Premier and Cabinet spokesman said legal advice had been sought on issues relating to work arrangements during the pandemic.On Friday, Tim Pallas confirmed that return-to-work arrangements were being left to individual public service managers.The Treasurer told a parliamentary committee the government had no plans to force workers to return to the office full-time.Average pedestrian activity near state government offices remains about half of pre-Covid figures, ­according to data compiled by the City of Melbourne.Advice prepared by the Fair Work Ombudsman is that employers can require or direct employees to return to the workplace as long as the requirement is lawful and reasonable.But employment law specialist Alan McDonald, of law firm ­McDonald Murholme, said the ­requirement could be challenged.“The Fair Work Ombudsman is generally correct but the question becomes: What is a lawful and reasonable direction in very different circumstances where it has been proven that working from home is acceptable and profitable?”, he said.“The lack of availability of public transport and the terribly increased traffic congestion everywhere has made commuting much more difficult, to the extent that family and carer responsibilities need to be ­accommodated by employers.“This also affects the lawfulness and reasonableness of any requirement to return to an office”.Mr McDonald said the government must acknowledge that the industrial relations landscape had changed permanently due to the world-record lockdown it imposed.“The consequences of the community accepting the lockdown is that the government must now accept working from home is the new norm,” he said.“Its capacity to force people back to offices has many limitations, especially where it is imposing vaccine mandates and where the prevalence of Covid is so high and people are forced to quarantine at home when they contract Covid.”The latest data suggests state government employees are lagging behind their Commonwealth and council counterparts when it comes to getting back behind their desks.City of Melbourne chief executive Justin Hanney said almost 90 per cent of staff were visiting offices during the week, and 70 per cent were in offices on any given day.According to the Australian Public Service Commission, just one-third of Victorian-based Common­wealth public servants worked from home on any given day, and working from home should be a thing of the past.Opposition spokesman for CBD recovery David Southwick said city traders could not sustain their businesses on part-time trading.“Melbourne will never recover and rebuild to be the world’s most liveable city again unless workers are encouraged to return,” he said. ‘You can’t survive as a business on those figures’Business owners in Melbourne’s CBD continue to struggle as not enough employees are returning back to offices.89 per cent of Australian employees want part of the work-week spent at home according to a Taking the Pulse of the Nation Survey done in January of this year. With employees not wanting to return to offices full time, business owners in the CBD that rely on a high capacity of workers in office buildings are finding it difficult to earn enough. Espresso Lounge owner Spiros Rombotis said that his cafe on Collins street “can work with 25 per cent of the building’s capacity being used, but it hasn’t been anywhere near that.” “The average turnover is less than $2000 a week, and rent is $800 a week: you can’t survive as a business on those figures,” he said. “The regulars we have now are coming once a week, once a fortnight, sometimes once every three weeks when they used to be here five days a week.” Mr Rombotis said he was critical of Dan Andrew’s approach to lock down and unwillingness to have public servants return to offices. “It was interesting to see the difference between Sydney and Melbourne when it came to locking down last year.”“They were trying to keep their economy as open as they could in Sydney.”“We kept locking-down and the concerning pattern is starting to appear now,” he said.

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