On 3 February 2023, the Federal Court (“the Court”) heard a bid by Teal MP Dr. Monique Ryan’s chief of staff, Sally Rugg to keep her job until it finishes dealing with her claims that the Federal Government sacked her for refusing to work unreasonable extra hours and subjected her to “hostile conduct”.
The working relationship between Ms Ryan and Ms Rugg deteriorated due to a number of incidents, the Court was told, including when Ms Rugg was reprimanded by her boss and given a formal warning for travelling home on a plane while positive for COVID-19 in November 2022.
In addition to this, Rugg alleges Ryan asked her to work more than 70 to 80 hours a week. That included: “both days of the weekend”; 12-hour days in parliamentary sitting weeks; and eight or nine hours in the office on non-sitting days, with very early morning and late nights answering media inquiries, emails and writing briefs.
Rugg’s barrister Angel Aleksov outlined that her salary of $136,000 plus parliamentary allowance of $30,000 was not enough for the additional hours she was working. He also told the Court that Ms Rugg was “pushed or jostled into resigning” after refusing to do community engagement work for Dr. Ryan, on top of her existing work.
Dr. Ryan said that she disagreed “with any suggestion that I required or expected Ms Rugg to work that number of hours” and “never once” directed her to. She also denies any hostile conduct. Lawyers for Dr Ryan and the Commonwealth say the working relationship needs to end and that it would not be suitable for Ms Rugg and Dr Ryan to work together again because their relationship had suffered “a fundamental and irreparable breakdown”.
Justice Debra Mortimer said she had never “seen a case like this” – of an employee seeking an interim injunction to keep their job in what both Ms. Rugg and Dr. Ryan accepted was an “intense, personal working relationship”.
Justice Mortimer suggested the full case could take two weeks to hear and may require evidence about what “reasonable hours” staffers in parliament work, including evidence from “staffers of other politicians”. She further questioned how “two people who have different views” about what reasonable hours are can be “ordered to continue to work together”.
On Tuesday 7 March 2023, Justice Mortimer dismissed Rugg’s urgent applicant, stating that Rugg failed to prove she wanted to continue working for and support Dr Ryan, because her evidence was more focused on her own career. She further stated “I do not see how this is the conduct of a person who wishes to return to work closely and professionally with Dr. Ryan”.
This case highlights the Fair Work Act’s maximum weekly hours provisions and adverse action protections, as well as the right to refuse to work unreasonable hours enshrined in clauses 31 and 32 of the Commonwealth Members of Parliament Staff Enterprise Agreement 2020-23. A review of Commonwealth parliamentary work practises in November 2021 found that Parliament does not meet workplace standards and identified long and irregular hours as a factor that can exacerbate the aggressiveness in the workplace and negative experiences of workplace culture.
If this raises any questions for any employers or employees, please do not hesitate to contact Nick Stevens, Peter Hindeleh, Daphne Klianis or Josh Hoggett who will be able to provide you specific advice.