The United Workers Union ACT have lashed out at big businesses claiming they are misusing JobKeeper payments and putting undue pressure on employees to take leave during the pandemic.
Union members staged a demonstration outside of Canberra Casino this week, attempting to petition management to allow employees to refuse annual leave requests.
Union ACT State Secretary Lyndal Ryan accused the casino of taking advantage of workers' confusion around their rights and what is allowed in the COVID-19 climate.
Casino chief executive officer Allison Gallaugher said the company has complied with JobKeeper rules in its requests to employees with large leave balances owed to use it and that there has been "no bullying and no trickery" in their approach.
Ms Gallaugher said some employees with large balances who did not agree to take it had been advised the dispute would be referred to the Fair Work Commision.
"The cases were sent to a very small number of employees who refused to negotiate at all, together with a multitude of other information and explanations relating to the JobKeeper scheme, for full transparency and not in any way as a threat," Ms Gallaugher said.
Attorney-General Christian Porter said there was nothing in the temporary law changes facilitating JobKeeper payments which allowed an employer to force or compel their employees to take annual leave.
He said requesting employees take annual leave at full pay or double the amount at half is within their rights.
"[However] an employee can refuse an employer's request to take annual leave where they have a reasonable basis for doing so."
Mr Porter said any agreement to take annual leave must not result in the employee having less than two weeks leave left and employers must pay employee wages for hours actually worked if it exceeds the $1500 JobKeeper entitlement.
"Failure to do so could result in very serious penalties of up to $630,000," Mr Porter said.
Some of them are effectively being tricked into taking leave with no explanation as to whyLyndal Ryan
Ms Ryan said Casino employees are not the only Canberrans contacting the union over uncertainty of their rights.
"Some [employees] are effectively being tricked into taking leave with no explanation as to why. We suspect they are being asked to take it at half pay so there's no obligation for employers to top up the wages of people who usually earn more than $1500.
"If there is an actual need and the worker is in agreement then there is no problem, it is the threats that long-serving employees who have built up entitlements are being hit with," she said.
"When you consider the Commonwealth payment for businesses in the ACT it shouldn't be happening. Many have been entitled to the waving of payroll tax and discounts on rates and electricity - these things were intended so that they didn't have to be so draconian in their treatment of workers."
Canberra Business Chamber CEO Graham Catt said it was certainly not his experience that business owners were using JobKeeper to take advantage of employees.
"Most of the businesses we speak to have welcomed JobKeeper as a way to get people to stay connected with the business, as a way to have meaningful employment and meaningful work over this period and for the businesses who can't trade profitably to be able to include employees in whatever business model they are operating," Mr Catt said.
Following Chief Minister Andrew Barr's announcing this week of a further easing of restrictions from midday next Friday, the next wave of Canberra businesses will be permitted to open their doors.
With many restaurants, bars, gyms and theatres preparing to open for the first time since forced closures in March, chamber members will meet with community organisations and charities over the next two weeks to begin mapping out a plan for recovery.
Mr Catt said in a statement this week that the future recovery of the ACT economy was going to have to be private sector led.
"Governments around the country are now heavily indebted and have limited capacity to spend their way out in the long term.
"If we want to have full employment in the ACT, it's now going to have to come from private enterprise.
"To do that, we need to identify both the current blockers and the future engines of growth, and work with the ACT government and industry groups on these. That's what our forums will be doing," Mr Catt said.
According to Mr Catt, the first of the business forums had identified the need for ongoing cash flow in order for businesses to survive, the continuation of JobKeeper beyond September and more support for startups and the ACT tourism sector.
He said a consistent concern for many business owners was "falling off a cliff" when support runs out and they are left without a viable operation.
"We saw of course the removal last week of the JobKeeper payment for childcare workers, our members in that area made it very clear that it was an unexpected impact and that they had factored into their planning that JobKeeper would be there until September," Mr Catt said.
He said results of the forums will be presented to businesses and ACT government in the coming weeks.