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Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the FWO has quickly responded to ensure we are delivering the most up-to-date information and advice to our customers as the situation evolves.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on Australian workplaces, with many businesses being temporarily closed or having reduced capacity, new temporary clauses being inserted into many awards, and legislative changes such as the JobKeeper scheme being introduced.

As a result, the number of employers and employees seeking our assistance has grown significantly. Since mid-March, the average number of calls to our Infoline per day increased by 40% compared to the same period last year. Website sessions across the FWO’s main and coronavirus websites increased by 43%, and enquiries to the FWO through our phone and digital channels increased by 36%.

In response, we adjusted our resources and services to meet the evolving needs of our customers.

The FWO was allocated an additional $46.3 million in funding from the Australian Government over 3 years, from 2019–20 to 30 June 2022. The extra funding will enable us to continue to meet the high levels of community demand for our assistance, and provide enhanced advice and education services for businesses and employees.

In addition, 5 staff from ROC and 11 staff from the Australian Building and Construction Commission were seconded to FWO to assist with critical work, including frontline services.

COVID-19 online services

Coronavirus website

On 4 February 2020, we published information addressing COVID-19’s impact on workplace laws on our website. The information was updated frequently as the situation developed.

On 25 March 2020, we launched a dedicated coronavirus website at coronavirus.fairwork.gov.au. The mobile-friendly site provides the community with up-to-date information and advice, and addresses the most common enquiries and issues that employers and employees are seeking our advice about. Information and topics covered on the site include:

  • pay and leave
  • the rules relating to the JobKeeper scheme
  • temporary changes to workplace laws, including award specific flexibility provisions and pandemic leave
  • health and safety in the workplace
  • alternative working arrangements
  • stand downs, ending employment and redundancy.

The information on our coronavirus website can also be translated into 34 languages.

We have created new tools and resources to help small business employers manage their obligations during the coronavirus outbreak, including template letters to help employers manage JobKeeper obligations and stand downs. We have also updated our existing online tools and resources including the Restaurant and Fast Food Industry infographics to provide help and guidance on issues like pandemic leave and increased workplace flexibility.

As at 30 June 2020, there had been over 4.1 million page views of our coronavirus web content.

Virtual assistant

To help further address the significant increase in pandemic-related customer enquiries, we upgraded the coronavirus website in early June to include a new virtual assistant named ‘Frankie’. Frankie is designed to help answer our online customers’ COVID-19 related questions.

Frankie's knowledge base comes from 110 frequently asked questions and is based on the most common queries that our customers are seeking our advice on. We continually update and refine Frankie to ensure she is meeting user needs and answering frequently asked questions.

If a customer asks about information that is outside our jurisdiction, Frankie will direct them to the most appropriate government website, such as Services Australia, the Australian Taxation Office, or the Department of Health.

Where Frankie can’t answer a question, she will respond with a safety net response, advising the customer that she can’t answer all questions. As at 30 June 2020, Frankie’s safety net response rate was 6.54%.

As at 30 June 2020, Frankie has had a total of 2059 sessions (the number of times the virtual assistant has been opened) and 2771 questions from customers.

Online communications campaigns

In the 2019–20 financial year, we used our subscription service and social media channels to run ongoing communication and education campaigns relating to COVID-19 and Australian workplace laws.

As at 30 June 2020, we had:

  • posted more than 120 updates across our Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts
  • reviewed over 6400 social media comments
  • responded to over 1400 social media enquiries
  • sent emails to over 570,000 of our email subscribers, notifying them of workplace relations changes as a result of the pandemic, including in relation to the JobKeeper scheme, and on changes to awards.

Phone services – coronavirus hotline

We established a dedicated coronavirus hotline for our customers on 10 March 2020. Customers are directed to the hotline if they select COVID-19 as the reason for their call through our Interactive Voice Response system.

Between its launch and 30 June 2020, the hotline answered 56,765 calls. The majority of these came from employees (76%).

The top 3 industries to call through were from:

  • health care and social assistance
  • accommodation and food services
  • retail.

Almost one-third of all calls we received to the hotline related to the JobKeeper scheme.

The key areas our customers wanted information on related to:

  • general wages (such as hourly rate)
  • hours of work
  • termination and redundancy
  • leave.

Workplace Legal Advice Program

To assist workplaces during the COVID-19 pandemic, we established a pilot Workplace Legal Advice Program in April 2020. The program forms part of the Australian Government’s additional funding to the agency to respond to the pandemic.

The program established a panel of external legal service providers with specialist skills in workplace relations. These providers give free advice and information to eligible workplace participants referred from the FWO, helping them respond to and recover from the impacts of the pandemic.

As at 30 June 2020, the program had 11 external legal service providers on the panel and had made 415 referrals to the panel for free advice.

The FWO will continue to expand the Workplace Legal Advice Program in the new financial year.

COVID-19 stakeholder activities and engagements

We have been working closely with key government and community stakeholders to respond to workplace relations issues arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic and to share learnings and strategies. Key engagements include:

  • working with government agencies, specifically the Australian Taxation Office and the Fair Work Commission, to administer the JobKeeper scheme. FWO is a member of the JobKeeper Program Inter-Departmental Committee and its 3 working groups, each of which oversees key aspects of the program. Our 3 agencies, along with Treasury and the Attorney General’s Department, will continue to work together to ensure the integrity of the JobKeeper scheme
  • meeting with industry, employer and employee organisations such as The Council of Small Businesses of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Industry Group to further understand the impact COVID-19 has had on different industries and organisations, and to seek feedback on our tools and resources
  • meeting with our New Zealand counterpart, the Employment Services division of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to share and learn from their experience in managing the impacts of the pandemic
  • writing to key stakeholders, intermediaries and contacts to promote our COVID-19 resources.

COVID-19’s impact on our services

The FWO continues to discharge its statutory functions to provide education, advice and enforcement in a proportionate and appropriate way, consistent with the public interest. Due to the impact of COVID-19 on Australian workplaces, the number of employers and employees seeking our assistance has grown significantly. In response, we have adjusted our services and priorities to meet the changing needs of our customers. This has included focusing our resources on assisting employers and employees navigate the complexities of the Fair Work Act in the context of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.

FWO offices have been closed to the public since 18 March 2020, for both the health and safety of our staff as well as the wider community. Our field-based work and physical attendance at education events have also been temporarily suspended. Social distancing, travel restrictions, the health and safety of FWO staff, and restrictions to some businesses and industries mean Fair Work Inspectors are only undertaking desk-based investigations but will recommence site visits to businesses when appropriate.