Flexible Work Changes For Small Businesses Welcome, But Clarity Is Needed Around Health, Safety

Published September 01, 2020 -
small business employer smiling about the flexible work changes coming in JobKeeper

Proposed new workplace conditions for employees working from home would make it easier for employers to keep people in jobs, but more clarity is needed in regard to workplace health and safety, according to Employsure, Australia’s largest workplace relations advisor.

The call is in response to the Fair Work Commission’s Draft Award Flexibility Schedule, which could see employers and their staff in some Awards agree to flexible working hours during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a more relaxed approach to typical Award constraints such as overtime and penalty rates.

The model Flexibility Schedule would allow staff in some industries and occupations to work these hours — including compressing their work week into fewer days — without the employer having to pay overtime or penalty rates.

“Any changes to modern awards that benefit small business owners are welcome, but they must be changed in a way that offers adequate protection,” said Employsure Managing Director Ed Mallett.

“A change to modern awards of this nature would need to clarify the work health and safety obligations of employers who have staff working from home. An employer has a duty of care that extends to anywhere that an employee can perform work. They need to ensure they’re doing right by their staff and are compliant with industrial relations and health and safety laws.

“Of course, while these changes are geared towards convenience and helping employers manage the current pandemic, there needs to be some caution about potential pitfalls that these changes themselves may create.

“We can’t assume that employees spending more time working from home will always be a good thing. There are many factors that need to be considered if we’re going to seriously consider a framework where employees will be spending less time at the workplace. The impacts on mental health, workplace safety and career progression need to be carefully considered and addressed.

“There have been reports of employees facing mental health challenges when working from home and spending more time in isolation. Others have been exposed to domestic violence. If the FWC is going to add further flexibility, work health and safety regulators need to make clear exactly how liable an employer will be in these situations, and if their responsibilities have changed.

“By allowing employers and their staff to work to together towards a flexible arrangement during this pandemic, it will allow businesses to recover quicker, and keep more people employed. However, the last thing we want is to expose employers to new, long term risks.”

On top of the proposed flexible work changes, small business owners receiving the JobKeeper wage subsidy have had the power to give employees JobKeeper enabling directions, under temporary amendments to the Fair Work Act.

Mr Mallett believes an extension to these industrial relation changes will help aid in the country’s economic recovery.

“The changes to the Fair Work Act through the JobKeeper program have given employers the flexibility they need to continue to operate through this pandemic,” Mr Mallett said.

“Many employers are reliant on workplace provisions and would be forced to terminate employees without this flexibility. As we move forward, businesses will need more flexibility to survive in a post-pandemic economy.

“The Prime Minister’s subsequent JobMaker announcement and the associated workplace relations reform was an important acknowledgement that Australia’s current system is broken. It’s our hope that the conversations currently underway deliver a sensible, practical approach to workplace relations and delivers the reform required to drive change.

“The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the previous complications that were present in Australia’s workplace relations system. The JobKeeper changes have benefited employers and workers across the country by both saving and creating jobs.”

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