The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruptions to Australian workplaces. As Australia’s national workplace relations tribunal, the Commission has played a role in helping workplaces respond to the economic impacts of the pandemic, and has been able to maintain continuity of its services at all times.
The Commission has been able to continue to deliver its services throughout the pandemic, largely by holding hearings and conferences remotely and reallocating resources to manage increases in applications.
In March, most of the Commission’s workforce moved to remote working arrangements in recognition that service continuity relies on our workforce being healthy and available. This represented a significant shift in the Commission’s operations.
The Commission has operated digitally throughout the pandemic. Most conciliations and conferences in unfair dismissal and general protections involving dismissal cases were already held by telephone. When restrictions relating to COVID‑19 were introduced, the Commission quickly moved to ensure all conferences and hearings could be held remotely.
In the last quarter of 2019‑20, the Commission’s total case load increased 19 per cent compared with the same period in 2019. This net increase in lodgements between March and June 2020 was not uniform across all case types. There were significant increases of lodgements in some case types and significant decreases in others. Unfair dismissal applications increased by 43 per cent increase between March and June 2020, with 1520 more applications received compared to the same period in 2018‑19. The number of applications to vary enterprise agreements, to deal with stand‑down disputes, and general protections claims involving dismissal also increased significantly. Conversely, there were significantly fewer applications to approve enterprise agreements, for right of entry permits, and industrial action when compared to the last quarter of 2018‑19.
The Commission implemented a number of initiatives to deal with the increased number of unfair dismissal applications. This included the reallocation of resources and utilising a surge workforce consisting of staff from other agencies. These measures were successful, with conciliations finalised in a median of 34 days from lodgment of an unfair dismissal application, meeting the Portfolio Budget Statement target (discussed further in the Annual performance statements).
Award variations in response to COVID-19
The Commission acted quickly to vary modern awards to provide flexibility for employers and employees to make workplace changes in response to COVID-19, both upon application by employer and employee organisations and on its own motion.
The Commission generally heard urgent award variation applications within 48 hours of lodgment, with decisions issued shortly afterward. This included the Hospitality Award, the Clerks – Private Sector Award, Educational Services (Schools) General Staff Award and the Restaurants Award.
On its own motion, a Full Bench of the Commission varied 99 modern awards on 8 April 2020 covering millions of Australian employees and employers. The decision inserted a new Schedule providing up to 2 weeks’ unpaid pandemic leave and a capacity to take annual leave at half pay for employers and employees covered by these awards.
The Schedule expired on 30 June 2020. The Commission issued a statement on 23 June inviting parties wishing to extend the operation of the schedule to apply to the Commission. The Schedule was subsequently extended until 30 September 2020 in all but one of the awards.
The Commission implemented measures consistent with Government advice to ensure a safe environment for our clients, staff and Members. In addition to supporting remote work and remote hearings, the Commission closed its counters and stopped accepting hard copy applications to limit physical interactions and mitigate the risks of contracting COVID-19.
To ensure access to justice, the Commission recognised that there would be circumstances where a face-to-face hearing or conference was required. In each Commission office, hearing rooms have been adapted to align with social distancing and hygiene protocols. Similarly, internal office spaces have been adapted to provide a safe environment for Members and staff working in the office.
The Commission has developed protocols that align to the latest Government guidance. These protocols ensure the Commission is well positioned to respond to any emerging situation. The Commission’s clients were kept informed of any changes to operations through a dedicated COVID-19 webpage, regular updates from the President on the Commission’s website and subscriber alerts.