Business owner fined $14,000 over “despicable” abuse of JobKeeper scheme

JobKeeper

Source: Unsplash/Marjan Blan.

A Queensland business owner is facing a $14,000 penalty for allegedly requiring an employee to repay his JobKeeper payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The business owner also repaid the worker in question more than $6200 in unlawfully reclaimed wages, after what a judge called a “callous and despicable” breach of trust.

The Fair Work Ombudsman took the business owner to court over a so-called ‘cashback request’ for a casual employee, after he allegedly required the workers to repay part of their JobKeeper payment.

The business owner, Khan Andrew Buchanan, is a sole trader who operates RiverCity Bus Service, a school and charter bus service in the Brisbane and Logan areas in Queensland.

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, Buchanan employed a bus driver on a casual basis between 2017 and 2020, and between March and September 2020 received JobKeeper wage subsidy payments for that worker of $1500 fortnightly.

These payments were initially made in full, minus tax, but totalled more than the worker would typically earn in a two-week period.

Fair Work alleged that the business owner then breached the Fair Work Act — and the JobKeeper rules — by requiring the driver to pay back the difference between what he would be owed for his actual hours worked and the JobKeeper payment.

In total, the driver allegedly repaid a total of $5805 in JobKeeper payments, at the unlawful request of the business owner.

On another occasion, the Fair Work Ombudsman alleged Buchanan paid the driver $1035.60 of the $1500 JobKeeper payment, again failing to satisfy the conditions of the subsidy scheme.

The driver in question contacted Fair Work Inspectors for assistance. When those inspectors contacted Buchanan, he repaid the money owed, to a total of $6270.40.

Introduced back in 2020, the JobKeeper scheme was designed to keep employees employed during the COVID-19 crisis. Employees were initially entitled to payments of $1500 per fortnight, regardless of the number of hours worked, or usual rate of pay.

In a statement, Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker called the case “disappointing”, and a “deliberate failure” to follow the law on how the JobKeeper scheme was implemented.

So-called ‘cashback requirements’ like this imply a “deliberate attempt by an employer to mislead the regulator”, she added.

“We will not tolerate any employers requiring workers to pay back any of their wages except where it is allowed by law.”

In his ruling, Judge Salvatore Vasta described Buchanan’s actions as “reprehensible” and “calculated”.

He added that deterrence was a major factor in determining the size of the penalty, even though the JobKeeper scheme has now ended.

“The trust that the government gave to [Buchanan], in giving him payments to pass on to the employee, as well as the trust the employee had in [him], has been breached in a most callous and despicable manner.”

Buchanan has not responded to a request for comment.

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