Employers Can Legally Compel Workers To Return To Office
AUSTRALIA – Businesses have the legal right to oblige their employees to return to their workplace, although many major companies are currently permitting at least 50 percent of their personnel to continue telecommuting, reported The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday morning (14 January, SGT).
According to employment attorneys, employees generally don’t have any legal right to demand to work from home if it’s already safe to do so at the office.
If workers are instructed to return to their workplace, and their employer has adopted health and safety measures as per government’s guidelines, then the staff “will need to comply with that direction,” said Andrew Rich, principal lawyer at law firm Slater and Gordon.
“There are some circumstances under the Fair Work Act where workers have the right to make a request for flexible working arrangements, including working from home, and employers must consider them.”
“These include if the workplace isn’t safe, having a medical condition that makes a worker more susceptible to respiratory infection, needing to care for a family member or being over the age of 55,” Rich noted. However, companies can decline these requests.
Nonetheless, if the employer fails to follow the government’s health and safety measures, then a worker can legally insist on working from home, clarified Andrew Stewart, a law professor at the University of Adelaide.
“If an employee reasonably believes that it is unsafe to go to work, for example, because the employer has not taken appropriate measures to combat the risk of infection, they could lawfully insist on staying home. But if an employer is complying with relevant health directives, or if any risk of infection is negligible, that might be hard to establish.”
Notably, major companies that are allowing up to 50 percent of their staff to work from home at any point in time include PwC, GPT Group, and Commonwealth Bank.
A representative from Commonwealth Bank shared that this month its employees have the choice of working from home or office. On average, roughly 20 percent of its workforce in Victoria and New South Wales (NSW) have returned to their offices this week.
“We continue to monitor the situation and are currently looking at a hybrid return for many of our people in February, pending no new health concerns or restrictions are advised by the Victorian or NSW governments,” said the spokesperson.
PwC’s COO in Australia Liza Maimone revealed that before COVID-19 over 80 percent of its employees worked from home occasionally or chose flexible work arrangements. The percentage of its staff returning to the workplace follows rules laid down by the NSW authorities, while up to 50 percent of its workforce in Victoria are likely to return to their offices next Monday.
Similarly, GPT shared that the majority of its workers have returned to the office 3 or 4 days per week after it adopted a rotating roster last July.
Over at Westpac, office staff were told to continue working from home “unless it is business-critical to be in the workplace.”
“We plan to progressively increase the number of people working in our corporate offices when it is safe to do so, and are monitoring the current situation closely,” added its representative.