Unions representing Qantas workers will go to the High Court seeking to overturn a ruling that employees are not entitled to sick leave or compassionate leave while they were stood down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In late March, more than 20,000 workers were temporarily stood down due to COVID-19 and were denied their sick, carers and compassionate leave, but were still able to access annual leave, long service and JobKeeper payments.
The airline has sacked another 6000 workers, and is outsourcing about 2500 ground handling jobs, as it looks to save $1 billion a year from the 2023 financial year onwards.
In May, the Federal Court agreed Qantas staff could not access paid compassionate, personal or carer’s leave because there was no work for them to be absent from.
The unions then appealed to the Full Federal Court and again lost in November.
The court ruled if Qantas were required to pay leave entitlements after lawfully standing down its workers, that would defeat the purpose of having the staff furloughed in the first place.
Case could have far-reaching impact
The sick leave case could have far reaching consequences on whether other employers have to pay workers such entitlements.
The High Court appeal is backed by several unions including the Transport Workers Union (TWU), the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).
The unions said the case is being taken after a dissenting judge in the Federal Court judgment stated workers in Australia could be denied protections and entitlements because of the decision, and warned about “far-ranging effects… across all manner of leave entitlements”.
A Qantas spokesman said two courts have now confirmed that employees who are stood down are not eligible to receive paid sick leave because there is no work to be absent from.
“This is not just true of Qantas, but across the economy,” he said.
“Our employees, whether they were working before COVID or on sick leave, have access to JobKeeper, annual leave and long service leave while they are stood down, and are being provided other support.”
The airline now has about 11,500 employees back at work after state borders recently reopened.
Qantas boss Alan Joyce has previously said domestic flying could resume to about 80 per cent of pre-COVID levels by early next year, depending on whether there are further COVID-19 flare ups and associated border closures.
TWU says Qantas is ‘trashing lives’
TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said Qantas had received over $800 million in taxpayer support during the pandemic but was “trashing lives and trashing jobs”.
“Denying sick workers the leave they have built up and pushing them in some case out of their jobs in order to access redundancy payments to pay bills is utterly despicable,” Mr Kaine said.
The four unions are being supported in their High Court bid by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).
ACTU assistant secretary Scott Connolly said seriously ill Qantas workers included a man who has been battling cancer and another with heart disease, who both have over 30 years of service with the company.
“Qantas’ behaviour toward the most unwell people in its workforce has been callous and illegal,” he said.
“That’s why we fully support this bid to have this matter heard in the High Court.”
At the airline’s annual general meeting in October, chairman Richard Goyder attacked the unions for wasting their members’ and the airline’s money on legal challenges.
He said in the past two years there were 66 legal cases of which Qantas won all but five and one was under appeal.
“Unfortunately, that’s cost us over $10 million to defend those cases, a lot of cases which we believe should not have been taken,” Mr Goyder had said.
“It’s not only wasting their members’ money but our money in this crisis.”