In a ruling handed down last week, the Federal Court has found Qantas did not reasonably apply its JobKeeper subsidies and now owes backpay to hundreds of staff members who were engaged throughout the pandemic.
The case related to the way Qantas was paying overtime to workers, include airport staff, baggage handlers and cabin crew, with the airline choosing to pay overtime in the following fortnightly pay cycle to meet the JobKeeper minimum pay requirement of $1500 per fortnight.
Qantas argued by using workers’ arrears earnings, it was satisfying the “reasonable manner” requirements for JobKeeper entitlements.
However, the Court found a reasonable manner qualified only the period “during the fortnight” of actual work by an employee and was not to be confused with arrears payments.
“Rejected is the argument that ambiguity arises as to whether the phrase ‘during the fortnight’ qualifies only the period during which work is performed or applies more generally,” said Justice Geoffrey Flick.
“The phrase, with respect, cannot be construed as meaning anything other than an identification of that period of time during which work is performed and the point of time at which monies are to be paid.”
Flick explained that JobKeeper payments are only allowed to be claimed against employee wages that are “contractually due to receive during any given fortnight for work performed during that same fortnight”.
The ruling serves as a warning to other companies that are currently receiving JobKeeper payments and paying staff in arrears.
Transport Workers Union national secretary Michael Kaine said it was an important win for Qantas employees.
“These workers have endured systematic wage theft at the hands of an out of control management,” he said in a statement.
A Qantas spokesperson said the airline was “carefully considering” an appeal and argued it was “misleading for unions to suggest employees should expect a sudden windfall out of today’s judgment”.
As reported previously in the Australian Financial Review, the Fair Work Commission discovered Qantas was applying JobKeeper subsidies by splitting the pay of monthly-paid employees into fortnightly instalments, which reduced their full JobKeeper payment.
But Qantas argued the same principles did not apply to fortnightly-paid employees who make up the vast majority of the Qantas workforce.