NEW Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) Secretary Andrew Metcalfe AO will aim to nurse the ailing bureaucracy to heath, starting with cutting the high level of staff absenteeism.
The Senate’s Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee asked Mr Metcalfe to explain DAFF’s poor absenteeism record and other workplace issues during Additional Senate Budget Estimates hearings in Canberra this week.
Western Australian Liberal Senator Chris Back said a 2011-12 public service report placed DAFF in the upper echelons for unscheduled days off, with a median of 15.2 (days per year per employee), compared to the tax office (15.5) and health (15.2).
The hearing also revealed concerns about bullying and inappropriate behaviour within the Department and associated costs.
DAFF First Assistant Secretary, People and Service Delivery, Lynne O'Brien said between July and December seven claims for bullying or inappropriate behaviour were finalised within the Department and six formal misconduct investigations were open, as at December 31.
The Department has spent $48,888.96 in six months on consultants dealing with the claims - from July to December - while in the 2011-12 financial year it spent $136,609.27.
Staff bullying and harassment issues have also been taken to Comcare for inquiry, and could hypothetically turn into compensation cases, she said.
Senator Back asked if any analysis had been done to ascertain why DAFF’s numbers were so high.
Mr Metcalfe said on coming to the Department in January he noticed the issue of unscheduled absence and although work was being done in that area, "clearly more needs to be done”.
“We do not want to be up in the top four or five; we want to be below the median,” he said.
DAFF currently has 5200 employees, with 4500 to 4600 being full time.
Ms O'Brien said the 15.2 days, as reported in the State of the Service Report last year, was actually a decrease of 0.6 of a day, on the previous year’s result.
“We have recognised that this is a significant issue in the Department and have been working to address it,” she said.
Ms O’Brien said absenteeism rates in DAFF’s regional workforce were significantly higher than in Canberra; partly reflecting the challenging work environments regional employees faced.
“It reflects the fact that we have staff working on shifts and traditionally shift workers do utilise leave at higher rates than full-time employees,” he said.
Ms O’Brien said another significant driving factor was DAFF’s compensation leave figures, which are “relatively high for the public sector”.
She said 13.5 per cent of the absentee number was driven by compensation leave.
“Again, we are doing a series of activities to try and drive down the cost of our compensation and the amount of time people take off for compensation related incidents,” she said.
Mr Metcalfe said similar issues existed when he was head of the Immigration Department and they underwent a targeted series of management activities with staff trying to understand the reasons.
“Of course, there are often good reasons why a person may not be able to report for work - illness or some personal crisis involving family,” he said.
“We did take the step of ensuring that people could not simply email or text - there needed to be a conversation, so that the supervisor was able to work with the person.
“I understand that that approach has been taken with DAFF - but clearly there is more that we need to do and so that is a focus for us in the year ahead.”
Ms O’Brien said DAFF’s regional workforce had staff working in abattoirs, ports and airports, which were quite physically demanding activities.
She said just under half of its compensation cases related to “bodily stressing injuries or slips and trips”.
“A lot of our work is physically demanding and that drives a fair proportion of our claims,” she said.
In response to questioning from Tasmanian Liberal Senator Richard Colbeck, Ms O’Brien said 20 days were allowed per year under DAFF’s workplace enterprise agreement for sick leave, carer's leave and a range of personal leave factors.
She said there were also no certification requirements on Department staff currently, under the enterprise agreement. “We went through a period of protracted industrial action during the negotiation period around our enterprise agreement and one of the management initiated changes that we took off the table in order to reach resolution around the agreement was the requirement for the certification of sick leave and personal leave,” she said.
Senator Colbeck asked what the financial cost was to DAFF of the high absenteeism, which was taken on notice.
He also asked what saving was made by DAFF on the 0.6 reduction, which was also taken on notice.
Mr Metcalfe replaced former Department Secretary Conall O'Connell in January after he had served more than five years in the role.