Qantas and Jetstar’s decision to temporarily stand down two-thirds of their employees has once again sparked questions over how workplaces can respond to the worsening coronavirus pandemic.
Qantas has said it needs to stand down most of its 30,000 employees from late March until at least the end of May in order to preserve as many jobs as possible.
The decision, according to workplace relations law professor Anthony Forsyth from RMIT, could soon be taken by other businesses.
So we asked him what it could mean for casual, part-time and permanent employees.
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Can you be stood down by your employer?
Professor Forsyth says other businesses may also follow Qantas’s decision to stand down. (105.7 ABC Darwin: Emilia Terzon)
Yes. Usually, if you’re a full-time or part-time employee asked by your employer not to work, you would be entitled to be paid.
But under the Fair Work Act, any employee (whether full-time, part-time or casual) can be stood down without pay if they can’t do useful work because of an “equipment breakdown, industrial action or a stoppage of work for which the employer can’t reasonably be held responsible”.
And it can be for an indefinite period of time, according to Professor Forsyth, but only if the situation which has caused the stand-downs – in this case, potentially, the coronavirus pandemic – is still ongoing
How does it work?
Professor Forsyth says the Fair Work Act includes provisions on how stand-down arrangements work, but they don’t deal with every situation.
“Employees can be directed, for a period of time, to not attend work while business is affected, causing a necessary stoppage of work, and that’s without pay,” he told the ABC.
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While those rules apply under the Fair Work Act, you should also check your enterprise agreement (if you have one) as it might have further rules limiting employer stand-down powers.
Most larger business will have agreements in place, in which case Professor Forsyth says there may be provisions that state your employer “will need to consult with staff or unions before standing you down”.
“Or in some cases your agreement might stipulate that you should be paid for some or all of the time you are stood down,” he said.
“In the case of Qantas, they have about 50 enterprise agreements in place for their relevant divisions, but of the two I quickly read I couldn’t see any stand-down provision in place.”
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Professor Forsyth says that in that case, the Fair Work Act rules apply.
Qantas has said employees will be able to use annual and long service leave, but has conceded that periods of leave without pay are inevitable.
Employees have been told in an email that they can seek alternative employment and still keep their jobs, and can also access unemployment benefits.
It’s unclear if this will be the case for other employees who may be stood down by other organisations.
But Fair Work says it is possible for an employee to take paid or unpaid leave (for example, annual leave) during all or part of a period in which they would otherwise be stood down.
Could other employers soon follow suit?
Employers might be considering other ways they can continue operating during the coronavirus pandemic. (Pixabay: rawpixel)
Dr Forsyth says it’s likely Qantas is “only the beginning”.
“There’s definitely a massive concern this is just the start. Already we’ve seen many businesses impacted, just one business not being able to operate as normal can have a ripple effect on others,” he said.
“So other business will be looking at similar measures.”
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What other measures could be considered?
If your employer wants to continue operating, they may also consider making positions redundant in response to a business downturn due to the coronavirus outbreak.
According to the Fair Work website, an employer must meet a series of requirements before they can terminate someone, such as providing notice, and they will likely also have to provide redundancy pay.
“The advantage of a stand-down compared to redundancies is that employers have the option of being able to return to normal pretty quickly if the conditions that shut them down begin to change,” Professor Forsyth said.
“In the event of redundancies, they will have to look at whether they can redeploy staff, engage in consultations and provide redundancy pay, which can range from four weeks to 16 weeks under the Fair Work Act.”
The Fair Work website also says that under the relevant Act, an employee is protected from being dismissed because of a temporary absence due to illness or injury, for example having coronavirus.
“The Fair Work Act also includes protections against being dismissed because of discrimination, a reason that is harsh, unjust or unreasonable or another protected right,” the Fair Work website says.
“These protections continue to operate in relation to employees impacted by coronavirus.”
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