As more than a million Australians lose their livelihoods due to the coronavirus pandemic, for some companies, it is a ‘‘once in a generation’’ excuse to lay off workers and clear their books for the years ahead.
And now many sacked employees are taking action.
Employment lawyers and unions say they have been swamped with unfair redundancy claims since COVID-19 sent the country into a recession and forced the jobless rate to its highest level since 1998.
Robert Klaus, 59, was a storeman at food services company PFD for nine years before the pandemic. He was made redundant in September.
On Friday, his case will be lodged to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) on the basis of discrimination.
“It came to me as a real kick in the arse and gut-wrenching I was chosen for redundancy,” Mr Klaus said.
“They said my position had become redundant because of the skills matrix exercise. They believed I was in the bottom area of skills.”
He said he had never heard of the skills matrix, and senior management refused to offer transparency on how it worked during his redundancy negotiations.
Since he has been away, workers on his shift have allegedly worked overtime every day.
“They could not at any time explain how they came up with the skills matrix exercise, what skills I was lacking in, and why I was chosen,” he said.
Mr Klaus was made redundant just seven days before the company came off JobKeeper, but he believes he was singled out by management for asking the company to support workers through a pandemic payment.
“It’s extremely depressive and it’s hard to cope at times,” he said.
“I would have loved to have seen my days out at PFD. It’s quite difficult at this stage to find work again, especially at 59.”
PFD Foods did not respond to The New Daily’s request for comment.
United Workers Union director of food and beverage Susie Allison said the case highlighted but multimillion-dollar companies ‘‘using the pandemic as an excuse to scrap hard-working employees’’.
“We want to see companies acting with integrity, especially after taking millions in taxpayer-funded subsidies,” Ms Allison said.
In May, the Fair Work Commission revealed there had been a 70 per cent spike in unfair dismissal claims because of the coronavirus crisis.
Fair Work Commission general manager Bernadette O’Neill told a Senate committee they were at record levels.
“The increase in unfair dismissal has been unprecedented, so significantly higher than any other period from our records,” she said.
The New Daily spoke to several law firms that deal with employment and all of them said phones had run hot about redundancies since the pandemic restrictions began in March.
Gary Pinchen, a principal at A Whole New Approach, Australian Workplace & Discrimination Representatives said COVID-19-related redundancies had occurred in three waves.
“In the first wave were companies kicked off early, letting go of people they just didn‘t like. ‘That one’s too old, that one complains, this one wants to have another kid’ – they were the first wave,” he said.
“The first wave was about payback, and opportunity prevails.”
The second wave was legitimate, with businesses having to lay off workers as they came off JobKeeper and struggled to make ends meet, he said.
“Now we’ve got the third wave and it is people getting replaced with cheaper workers.
“There’s a whole movement of people on $100,000 to $150,000, they’re getting made redundant for poor performance. I saw a senior executive terminated for a spelling mistake.”
Companies around the country are using the pandemic as a ‘‘once-in-a-generation opportunity to lay off workers’’, he said.
“Companies are getting cunning. It’s unlawful to terminate people on the basis of replacing them with a cheaper worker so you get made redundant, and then a month or two later there’s their job on LinkedIn or SEEK.
“There’s a strictly enforced 21 days to lodge an unfair dismissal claim, so they wait past 21 days and then advertise.”
Zoran Koloski had worked at Bidfood, another food services company in Queensland for three years. He was made redundant in May.
“It was based on performance, but there was no problem when I was a driver or in the warehouse,” he said.
“One of the other drivers didn’t put on his handbrake and it rolled into a police car. You can’t get any worse than that, but they ended up getting rid of me.”
He was given $12,000 but after his departure, the company allegedly put on casuals to replace those who had been made redundant.
Bidfood declined to comment.
Mr Koloski has picked up work as a casual but has a mortgage and three kids to feed. He said it was ‘‘getting tough’’.
“It’s hammered me. I was just thrown out in the lurch,” he said.
Slater and Gordon principal Carita Kazakoff said the government’s announcement in Tuesday’s budget that taxpayers would subsidise the wages of younger workers, left older ones more vulnerable.
“In a situation where you do have more experience and are a well-qualified and highly paid worker, companies might be tempted to terminate them to get in a cheaper worker,” she said.
“But sacking an older worker in this scenario is not lawful and workers in this position will have rights to challenge their dismissal.”
Senior solicitor Justin Penafiel at Shine Lawyers said the pandemic had also made it easier for employees to be stood down without pay or have their hours reduced.
“A series of legislative changes introduced to help businesses using JobKeeper to survive the economic downturn has actually made it harder for employees to challenge what might usually be a constructive dismissal,” he said.
“That’s when a worker’s employment is effectively terminated because they’ve had their hours or pay significantly reduced or been stood down without pay.
“When workplace laws revert to normal beyond March next year, employers won’t be able to reduce hours and pay quite so easily.”