Supporting councils during COVID-19
COVID-19 Industrial Relations and the current ‘State of Play’
By Troy Wild, Peak Services Legal Practice Director
What a roller coaster.
I do not think we ever thought we would see something like this happen in our lifetime and the impact and subsequent consequences across the board have been significant, let alone just in the Human Resource and Industrial Relations space.
We found ourselves in unchartered territory, suddenly and without any warning.
Inundated with industrial relations queries, the LGAQ IR Helpdesk service delivered by our team was more critical than ever in responding to a range of different COVID-19 related queries from councils. These queries related to standing down employees, leave entitlements and what types of leave could be accessed, working from home arrangements, changes to ordinary hours of work, redeployment options and entitlements to ‘Job Keeper’ and ‘Job Seeker’ payments.
We worked closely with the LGAQ with daily briefings and discussions on workforce developments which contributed to the development of several Fact Sheets for councils to help navigate this unprecedented situation. We have also been instrumental in developing an ongoing library of COVID-19 FAQs, a list of which is being distributed this week to councils.
It was clear that councils needed increased flexibility in its workforce arrangements to respond to the challenges of this pandemic. We were able to support the LGAQ in negotiations with several Unions to reach an agreement to vary the Local Government Industry (Stream A) Award – State 2017 (‘Award’) as a temporary measure to provide the flexibility needed for both councils and council workers.
The Queensland Industrial Relations Commission approved the Application made by the LGAQ last week, by consent, with the relevant unions (see attached Order which was distributed to all councils last week) to temporarily vary the Award, resulting in this important agreement for councils and demonstrating now more than ever the importance of the role that employer associations, like the LGAQ, play.
The reason for the variation to the Award was well articulated in Schedules 2 and 3 “the provisions of this schedule are aimed at preserving the ongoing viability of Councils and preserving jobs during the COVID-19 Pandemic…”.
What does this now mean for local government and the ‘current state of play’? The key variations to the Award allow for:
Increased operational flexibility and changes to the span of ordinary hours for employees working from home;
Provisions for agreed temporary reduction to ordinary hours;
The provision of 10 days ‘Pandemic Leave’ for council workers in prescribed circumstances;
The requirement to provide 2 weeks’ notice before standing an employee down, or a shorter notice period if agreed between council and the employee; and
Councils to direct employees to take annual leave or long services leave in certain circumstances.
What is also exceptional is seeing an employer association (such as the LGAQ in this instance) and unions coming together to negotiate such an important and historic outcome for both councils and their workers.
Unfortunately, this is only the beginning, as we continue to navigate our way out of this crisis and the economic fallout. There are many challenges ahead, one being the many councils who have Certified Agreements in place and the requirement to implement yearly pay increases in accordance with the terms of their Certified Agreement. Due to the financial impact of COVID-19 councils may need to consider strategies to mitigate any pay increases due this year, including varying their current Certified Agreement.
What is certain, is that times have suddenly changed, and we are faced with a new era in terms of industrial relations. LGAQ’s Workforce Strategy Executive, Tony Goode recently observed, “while it is easy to just focus on COVID-19 issues at this time because of its immediacy and impact, councils can’t lose sight of the other ongoing workforce management challenges.”
“Issues such as performance management, complaints and grievances, absentee management, workforce planning and the like. Responding to these matters in a timely manner is as important now, as before the COVID-19 crisis emerged. Deferring a response to these issues, or worse, ignoring them altogether, will come back and bite councils in a big way later.”
Peak Services Legal and the Workforce Services team stand ready to continue to assist councils and deal with these issues arising in council's business. We have developed ways and means to deal with any workforce issue remotely that will “get the job done” for councils.
We will continue to provide regular updates and information to support local government and our role with the LGAQ.