Politics

Here’s What You Need To Know About Your Rights At Work

It's never been more important to know your rights.

Centrelink

Right now, workers are facing an uncertain future — the massive lines outside Centrelink offices today are proof of that.

With many “non-essential” businesses shutting their doors, a lot of people have suddenly been left without a job, with question marks over their entitlements during this unprecedented time.

Unfortunately, what has become clear is that not all businesses are able to weather the storm while financially supporting staff — which means Centrelink will have to step in to help thousands, maybe even millions, of Australians.

Qantas is a high profile example of that — last week they announced that 20,000 staff would be temporarily stood down, and some of them would have to take leave without pay.

According to the Reserve Bank of Australia, the coronavirus pandemic is expected to have a bigger economic impact than the Global Financial Crisis, and they’re also expecting significant job losses.

“We saw during the global financial crisis how flexibility in working arrangements limited job losses and this benefited the entire community. And I hope the same is going to be true in the months ahead,” RBA Governor Phillip Lowe said last week.

But this “flexibility in working arrangements” simply isn’t possible for many industries which require face-to-face contact, forcing many businesses to close even before the government shut down all “non-essential” services.

What Do Workers Need To Know?

Giri Sivaraman, Employment Law Principal at Maurice Blackburn, told Junkee there is still a lot of uncertainty about what workers will be entitled to.

However, the combination of a global pandemic and the government ordering a shutdown of “non-essential” services could mean legally some employers won’t need to pay their staff.

Under the Fair Work Act, an employee can be stood down without pay if they can’t do useful work due to “equipment break down, industrial action or a stoppage of work for which the employer cannot be held responsible”.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has set up a website dedicated to answering everyone’s coronavirus questions. That site temporarily crashed this morning, as did the MyGov website.

According to the website, if an employee cannot work because of a government order requiring them to self-quarantine, the employee is not usually entitled to be paid unless they use their leave entitlements.

First Thing’s First, Check Your Contract

Mr Sivaraman said each situation would need to be judged on a case-by-case basis, and workers should look at the fine print on their contract, award or entitlement before jumping to conclusions.

“Don’t assume employees can immediately stand down their workforce without looking at what leave options you might have, without talking about alternative work, without consulting with your union, looking at all those steps before we get to the point of a stand down,” he said.

“If the law is preventing an establishment from opening and the business can’t operate then the thing to work out is whether they can take leave for a period of time until businesses can reopen. We should be doing whatever we can to maintain employment.”

If the business is being forced to close for a “lawful” stand down — ie. the government has ordered it — legally, employees don’t need to be paid.

But if the business is shutting up shop for good then employees would be entitled to redundancy pay as well as any accrued entitlements.

“Casuals are in a more precarious position. Unless (permanent staff) are being lawfully stood down they’ve got to keep getting paid, casuals don’t have that right,” Mr Sivaraman said.

He’s calling on the federal government to step up and offer COVID-19 sick leave for casuals, something they’re not currently entitled to.

Crucially, employers also need to remember they will eventually need their staff back once this all blows over.

“In all the panic to deal with the situation we shouldn’t be trampling over employee rights and avoiding consultation,” Mr Sivaraman said. “Putting aside the laws, you should be consulting with your workforce because this will end and then we’ll need to have some trust and confidence in each other.

“You can’t stand people down forever, so it has to be with continued consultation.”

Ok, What’s New With Centrelink?

Yesterday the government announced a new coronavirus supplement which will temporarily double the dole payment.

Welfare recipients including those on the Jobseeker Payment (formerly Newstart) and Youth Allowance will get an extra $550 on top of their regular payment — but it’s only for six months, starting from April 27.

That coronavirus supplement is also on top of the one-off $750 cash bonus the government announced in their first stimulus package two weeks ago.

If you’re already a welfare recipient you’ll automatically get the payment. If you’re not, the government has relaxed the eligibility criteria for Jobseeker and Youth Allowance payments so more people can apply.

Permanent employees who have been stood down or lost their jobs are now eligible; as are sole traders, casual and contract workers, and self-employed people who’ve lost income. People who are caring for someone with coronavirus are also eligible.

For more information, and to learn how to apply, visit the relevant government website here.