Workers unhappy with employer's changes to roster structure

Only eight drivers – out of 1,000 at tram company – give evidence to Fair Work Commission

Workers unhappy with employer's changes to roster structure

An organised roster is essential for keeping workplaces running smoothly and efficiently. HR professionals know that an organised system sets expectations, helps track employee attendance and performance, and allows management to allocate resources strategically and delegate tasks.

Caselaw has consistently shown that businesses with an unstructured roster are more likely to be out of compliance with Fair Work regulations, leading to costly fines.

In a recent case, employees of a tram company resisted changes to the latter’s roster structure, arguing that it had been the system they’d known since the 1980s. Who prevailed?

Background of the case

In September 2022, a group of tram drivers referred a dispute to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) concerning the content and implementation of a new roster structure that their employer, Yarra Trams, intended to set from October 2022.

The roster structure for tram drivers had been in place since the 1980s. It involved morning and afternoon shifts which alternate every week.

According to records, rostering at Yarra Trams was “complex and time-consuming.” First, the tram schedule was established and approved by the government, and then employee rosters were developed to align with the Master Timetable. More than 1,000 tram drivers needed to be considered.

The employer said that it undertook consultation about the proposed change to a graduated roster structure between February and April 2022. Around the summer, it advised drivers that it had made a “definite decision to introduce the new structure.” 

The impact on employees

Meanwhile, the Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU), the tram drivers’ organisation, advised the employer in July 2022 that the consultation “did not comply with the obligations under their agreement.”

The employer maintained that the rationale for the change to a graduated roster structure was to “better manage the health and safety risk of driver fatigue.”

Eight drivers gave evidence about the impact of the implementation of the graduated roster on them and their families.

They said the new roster would “impair [their] ability to use shift swapping to align their working lives with their personal lives and impair a strategy used to manage their fatigue.”

One of the drivers said he does “extensive shift swapping to accommodate his preference for working broken shifts,” adding that it allows him to go home in the break, ultimately achieving “a good work/life balance.” Before the commission, he said that he “believes it will not be possible to maintain that balance under the graduated roster because he will not be able to take the tram to work, and it will not be easy to swap shifts.”

The FWC’s consideration

The Commission considered the total population of the employees.

“The employer has more than 1,000 tram drivers … the group’s evidence is confined to eight individual tram drivers giving evidence about their own circumstances, and indirectly the views of others because of their representative capacity,” it said.

“This makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the impact of the change on the entire group in assessing the merits of the change,” it added.

Yarra Trams has a duty “to take all reasonably practicable steps to eliminate or minimise risks to health and safety,” the commission said.

“Driver fatigue is clearly a risk, and the introduction of a graduated roster structure that experts and regulators advise is better … [It] is a reasonably practicable step to take to manage this risk,” it explained.

Thus, the introduction of the graduated roster structure provides “substantial improvements” in managing the risk of driver fatigue for employees who work to the graduated roster and those who engage in substantial shift-swapping, said the FWC.

“As a matter of industrial merit, the employer should not be prevented from implementing the graduated roster.”

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