Border Force has been warned that bonus allowances for seagoing staff are deterring workers from taking sick leave, leading them to risk their physical and mental health.
The seagoing commuted allowance is paid to Australian Border Force officers in the marine unit, and is worth between 60% and 63% of their base rate of pay.
Employees can claim the allowance while they are working, or are on annual leave or defence reserve leave, and for the first 18 days of personal leave – after which they lose the benefit.
The Community and Public Sector Union has raised the alarm after a string of incidents including the death of an officer at sea in June 2019 and Australian Border Force’s refusal to pay the allowance to staff who took time off to fight the summer bushfires.
In a report published in April, the CPSU said it had seen an “increase in safety inquiries … consistent with concerns about unsafe systems of work” in the marine unit.
ABF staff in the marine unit are subject to “unique and serious” risks, flying in and out to work “in remote and isolated conditions at sea” for four weeks at a time “performing armed border control operations which expose them to traumatic experiences”, it said.
The union has charged that the ABF has failed to implement a safe system of work because the annual 18-day cap on the allowance acts as a disincentive from disclosing mental and physical health issues or taking personal leave.
In a string of provisional improvement notices the CPSU has warned this creates a significant risk to the safety of employees.
The union said that after the Storm Bay death in June 2019 it conducted consultations with marine unit staff and identified the allowance as a risk factor in the report, which it sent to the ABF in May 2020.
A survey of 200 border force workers found 85% said they would not report a health issue if it could result in loss of the allowance, and 95% agreed they would be more likely to report an injury and take leave if there were no financial disincentive.
“Workers are not reporting psychological injuries or stress because they cannot bear the financial penalty that results from being taken off operational deployment,” the CPSU said in its report.
According to the notices, in July the home affairs department agreed to ensure employees do not suffer a financial penalty for taking leave due to psychological health issues.
The ABF issued a new policy allowing workers with a use of force permit, who are authorised to use a firearm, to access a mental health early intervention program without losing extra allowances for a period of six months.
But the union complained that the new policy did not apply to all marine unit staff and maintained the 18-day cap on the allowance during periods of personal leave.
The CPSU charged that the ABF is in breach of Work Health and Safety Act, and submitted it should pay the allowance during all periods of personal and carer’s leave to rectify the issue. The ABF must now either comply with the notice or ask Comcare to review it.
In addition to deterring personal leave, the union is concerned the cap penalises staff who take emergency services volunteer leave.
Guardian Australia has seen correspondence in which the department claims an employee was overpaid because they received the allowance while on leave to fight the summer bushfires.
The department is seeking to recoup several thousand dollars from the employee, while the CPSU argues the allowance should be paid due to the “exceptional circumstances”.
A Border Force spokesperson said the ABF “takes its work, health and safety obligations seriously” and disputed “any allegation that it has failed to implement safe systems of work”.
“The department is currently implementing supplementary support for officers in designated use of force positions, who have mental health concerns, have access to weapons and are fit to perform alternative duties,” the spokesperson said.
“This supplementary support will allow officers to continue to be paid salary-related allowances and penalties, while performing alternative duties and participating in a mental health early intervention program at their normal rate of pay for a period of six months.”
The spokesperson said “appropriate support is being provided to those officers who experience illness or injury” including Comcare workers’ compensation payments.
“In regard to the Storm Bay incident, the ABF ensured the officer’s family, other ABF officers on board the vessel and the broader ABF and Department of Home Affairs workforce were provided immediate and continued access to appropriate support.
“Given this matter is still before the Queensland coroner, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”