A stoush between a Dymocks franchisee and the Young Workers Centre has exposed some jagged edges in the design of the federal government’s JobKeeper program, after casual staff asked for wage subsidies despite having stood themselves down for fear of the COVID-19 pandemic.
New questions are being raised about rules for casuals under the $70 billion wage subsidy program in the wake of the disagreement, as it emerged that the business owner in this case was advised staff were not eligible for JobKeeper payments in April, despite technically remaining on the books.
In March, at the height of the coronavirus outbreak in Australia, nine of 16 casuals employed at Dymocks Chadstone asked to be stood down.
While the business was trading strongly amid a rush of book buying as shoppers prepared for lockdown, the workers were worried about potentially contracting the virus.
The staff, all long-term casuals working regular patterns, were subsequently taken off the roster, but began asking to be brought back after the government announced $1,500 fortnightly payments as part of the JobKeeper scheme.
Having typically worked between four and 12 hours a week, the minimum pay rate under JobKeeper represented a significant wage increase for the workers.
But by this stage there were not enough shifts available for all nine staff. Revenue for the business had collapsed in April after the Chadstone shopping centre began restricting hours and shoppers dried up.
The Dymocks franchisee intended to enroll in JobKeeper, but was advised by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) workers would only be eligible pay periods in which they had worked.
The business began re-rostering the stood down casuals gradually throughout April and into May as more work became available, enrolling them in JobKeeper as they began working again.
But the Young Workers Centre (YWC), which became aware of the case through an online tip-off in late April, claims the staff were initially told they were no longer employed by the bookshop.
In May, the YWC ran an online petition, which has since been taken down, claiming to be fighting for the nine casuals to be re-employed by the business, but SmartCompany has seen no evidence the workers were formally let go.
In response to the petition, Dymocks tweeted its human resources department was working with its franchise owner, but made no further public announcement.
We are doing everything we can to support all of our team members through this difficult time. Dymocks HR is working with the franchise owner involved to ensure their staff have been fairly treated.
— @dymocksbooks (@Dymocksbooks) May 14, 2020
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Felicity Sowerbutts, director of the Victorian Trades Hall-based YWC, says there’s no reason the staff shouldn’t have been enrolled in JobKeeper during April when the business filed its initial application.
“The young workers have been employed as casuals by Dymocks for three-to-four years. During that time they have worked regular shifts with a clear pattern. It was clear to the workers and the Young Workers Centre that they were eligible for JobKeeper and there was no reason that Dymocks could not opt them into the scheme,” Sowerbutts told SmartCompany in an emailed statement.
JobKeeper rules state employees are eligible for the wage subsidy program if they’ve currently employed by the applicant business and were on the books as of March 1. This includes workers who have been stood down, but because the casuals in this case effectively sought to stand themselves down, it is unclear whether they would be eligible for April JobKeeper payments.
As the staff were casuals, they were not entitled to leave payments, and there are questions about what their employment status was for the purposes of JobKeeper during the period they weren’t rostered in April. This is because the casual employment relationship is thought to require staff to be working shifts in some respect.
The processing deadline for April JobKeeper payments passed on May 10, so there is no suggestion the workers are still able to claim back payments. But the YWC maintains the workers were eligible.
The payments are worth between $1,500-$3,000 per worker, with each of the nine casuals returning to work between the end of March and May 8, the YWC said.
The eligibility of casual workers has been contested since the JobKeeper scheme was first announced in late March, with unions and federal Labor arguing all casuals should fall under the program.
Those calls have only intensified after it was revealed that Treasury had drastically over-estimated the likely cost of the program by about $60 billion dollars.
“As the Treasurer miscalculated $60 billion for JobKeeper, these rules can now be changed to ensure these young workers, other casual workers and temporary migrants don’t miss out on JobKeeper,” Sowerbutts said.
SmartCompany contacted Dymocks but did not receive a response prior to publication.