Fair Work open to extending wage repayments as coronavirus bites

The government's workplace watchdog is willing to negotiate with businesses that have underpaid staff about taking longer to make repayments if they are under financial strain because of the coronavirus.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has ramped up its call centres to help employers and workers navigate workplace changes the government has brought in to support them through the pandemic.

Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker is trying to guide workers and businesses through one of the largest and fastest upheavals in how Australians work.Credit:Jason South

But it has had to pause regular visits to firms to check if they are following wage rules, one of its most effective compliance tactics, because of health and safety concerns for its inspectors.

"Our expectation is still that those companies pay back their workers," Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. "But that doesn't stop them coming to us and saying … we’re really being hit hard by coronavirus. We would like to have extra time and we … can negotiate that. Again, it depends on the circumstances."

Australian companies have admitted underpaying workers hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few years.

Ms Parker said that felt like a "very long time ago" and while it remained a key issue for her organisation, Fair Work had shifted its focus to helping business and workers through the coronavirus crisis.

Ms Parker, who was appointed just over 18 months ago, is keenly aware of the virus' devastating health and economic impacts. Her elderly parents live just two blocks from a regional Tasmanian hospital at the centre of the state's largest outbreak.

She has put about 100 extra staff into Fair Work's call centres, which are receiving two-thirds more calls than normal from employers and workers concerned about their rights as the nation's industrial laws change at breakneck speed.

The regulator will also distribute $4.5 million evenly between the key union and employer groups that have been negotiating those changes with the government – the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Australian Industry Group and Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – to give advice to their constituents.

Fair Work's own advice, Ms Parker said, was around encouraging staff and employers to work out practical solutions to their problems.

While she is "sympathetic" to businesses that are struggling, "if there's blatant rorting then of course, we'll take action, we are not going to turn a blind eye".

While its inspectors are not making house calls, they are still taking complaints and can compel business to turn over information.

It is a role that has expanded with JobKeeper, the government's $130 billion wage subsidy program and temporary workplace relations overhaul, because Fair Work is charged with ensuring, along with other agencies, that employers do not abuse their new flexible-working powers.

"It's all hands on deck, really," Ms Parker said.

As well as more money for its call centres, Fair Work has been given funding to set up a panel of lawyers to help callers with the greatest need and most complex cases. The change is significant for Fair Work, which normally has to tell workers and small businesses faced with complex situations to seek their own legal advice.

Workers and employers can contact Fair Work by calling 13 13 94 or visiting fairwork.gov.au.

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