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The Devil is in the Detail: New Model Term on Flexible Working Arrangements
Rohan Burn, Graduate Associate
As part of the four-yearly review of modern awards, the Full Bench of the Fair Work Commission (“FWC”) has recently published a provisional model term that supplements the flexible working arrangement provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (“FW Act”) (the “Model Term”).
This follows the FWC’s decision in March 2018 where it rejected a major overhaul of the right to request flexible working arrangements on the basis that what was being sought would effectively remove the ability of businesses to determine how to roster labour.
While acknowledging there was a significant unmet employee need for flexible working arrangements, the FWC settled on an approach that would see a model term incorporated into modern awards that would “facilitate” arrangements and raise awareness of the right, rather than offering an avenue to challenge a denial of a request. Hence, the end result is a proposed model term that sets out the process an employer must follow if it is responding to a request and gives the FWC a degree of supervision over this process, but no decision-making role in relation to the underlying decision to refuse the request.
Further submissions relating to any award-specific issues will be made within the next two weeks. Subject to these submissions, it is the FWC’s provisional view that all modern awards should be varied to insert the Model Term. That provisional view will only be displaced in respect of any particular modern award if it is demonstrated that there are matters or circumstances particular to that modern award that do not necessitate the inclusion of the Model Term.
Flexibility requests under the FW Act
Under section 65 of the FW Act:
- an eligible employee may make a written request for a change in working arrangements which sets out the details of the change sought and the reasons for the change;
- the employer must give the employee a written response to the request within 21 days, stating whether the employer grants or refuses the request;
- the employer may refuse the request only on reasonable business grounds; and
- if the employer refuses the request, the written response must include details of the reasons for the refusal.
Under this scheme an employer’s decision to refuse a request for a flexible working arrangement is not subject to any review or appeal. As a result, the FWC is unable to deal with a dispute about whether an employer had “reasonable business grounds” for refusing the request unless the parties have agreed in a contract of employment, enterprise agreement or other written agreement that the FWC can deal with the matter.
What will change with the Model Term
The proposed Model Term will apply to all categories of employees who make a request under section 65 of the FW Act, and is not confined to parents and carers only.
Of particular importance for employers are the following process aspects:
- before responding to the request, the employer must discuss the request with the employee and “genuinely try to reach agreement” on a change in working arrangements that will reasonably accommodate the employee’s circumstances having regard to:
- the needs of the employee arising from their circumstances;
- the consequences for the employee if changes in working arrangements are not made; and
- any reasonable business grounds for refusing the request;
- the written response to the request must include details of the reasons for the refusal, including the business ground(s) for the refusal and how the business ground(s) apply;
- if the employer and employee cannot agree (at (1) above) on a change in working arrangements, the written response must:
- state whether or not there are any changes in working arrangements that the employer can offer the employee so as to better accommodate the employee’s circumstances; and
- if the employer can offer the employee such changes in working arrangements, set out those changes in working arrangements;
- if the employer and the employee reached an agreement (at (1) above) on a change in working arrangements that differs from that initially requested by the employee, the employer must provide the employee with a written response to their request setting out the agreed change(s) in working arrangements; and
- disputes about whether the employer has discussed the request with the employee and responded to the request (as required) are to be dealt with under the consultation and dispute resolution clauses of the modern award.
As a consequence, a dispute resolution clause can only be relied on in respect of a dispute about whether the employer has discussed the request with the employee and responded to the request, rather than the substantive decision whether to grant the request.
While the Model Term (for the most part) may already reflect the practices that organisations engage in, it does:
- require employers to be mindful of the level of genuine deliberation and consultation they engage in with employees in responding to requests; and
- increase the regulatory burden in administering requests.
It is also likely that organisations may find that, in the bargaining context, employees (or their bargaining representatives) seek to build on the Model Term and expand its scope to include disputes about whether an employer had “reasonable business grounds” to refuse the request within the dispute resolution clause.
PCS recommends that organisations update staff who are responsible for dealing with these requests (particularly line managers) about these proposed changes and any practices that may need to be revisited as a result of these changes.
Organisations should also consider the impact of these changes on employees who are not award covered and consider whether it will treat all employee requests in accordance with the proposed Model Term, or whether it will adopt different approaches for requests by award and non-award employees.