Qantas Unions Takes Sick Pay Fight To High Court

Unions have accused Qantas of callous and illegal behavior in a battle to win sick pay for stood down employees. As part of a long-running dispute, four unions representing Qantas employees will take the airline to Australia’s High Court in a last-ditch effort to win sick pay for their members.

Four unions are taking Qantas to the High Court over sick leave claims, Photo: Getty Images

No sick leave if no work, argues Qantas

The dispute goes back to earlier this year when Qantas stood down the bulk of its workforce. In addition to government financial support, employees could use up their accrued leave entitlements. But Qantas employees off on sick leave found their payments canceled. The airline argued you couldn’t be off sick from work if there is no work available.

“Denying sick workers the leave they have built up and pushing them in some cases out of their jobs in order to access redundancy payments to pay bills is utterly despicable,” says TWU Secretary Michael Kaine.

“Qantas has received over $800 million in taxpayers’ support to help it during the pandemic. But instead of acting like a responsible employer in return it is trashing lives and trashing jobs.”

So far, the courts have agreed with Qantas. In an effort to get Qantas to start paying sick leave entitlements again, a group of employees, including a longstanding employee with cancer, took Qantas to court in May. They lost. In Australia’s Federal Court, Justice Geoffrey Flick said sick leave was a form of income protection. If there is no available work to derive income, the case for income protection fails.

The unions accuse Qantas of trashing lives. Photo: Vincenzo Pace/

Unions motivated by a dissenting judge

A later appeal to the full bench of the Federal Court also failed. But at that hearing, there was one dissenting judge. That judge disagreed with the Qantas move, saying it had far-reaching ramifications across the industrial relations landscape, impacting all manner of leave entitlements.

That’s the motivation behind the union’s decision to take the matter to Australia’s High Court.

“This appeal is not just important for Qantas employees who’ve been unfairly denied access to their own sick, compassionate, personal or carer’s leave; it’s critical to all workers in Australia who may be stood down in the future,” says Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Assistant Secretary Scott Connolly.

“Stand downs are meant to be strictly limited to particular circumstances, but even in those circumstances, workers should not be prevented from taking leave or being paid their basic entitlements.

“That’s why this case must be fought all the way to the High Court. Qantas and all employers must be held to account to ensure that entitlements for workers are not put at risk, now or in the future.”

The unions think their case has merit. Photo: Getty Images

No guarantee the union case will win in court

It’s notoriously tricky to get the High Court, Australia’s highest court and end of the road for legal challenges, to rule in your favor or even get them to hear your case. But the unions think the broader ramifications of the Qantas position means their argument has merit.

Qantas disagree. Qantas says two courts have confirmed that stood down employees are not eligible to receive paid sick leave because there is no work to be absent from. The airline notes the impact the travel crunch has had on them, the aviation industry, and the broader economy.

Nonetheless, in October, airline executives acknowledged the human impact of tough decisions. But they also argued those decisions were made to ensure the survival of the airline.

“These decisions are about putting the Qantas Group in a position where we can survive, recover, and ultimately grow again,” said Qantas Chairman Richard Goyder.

Simple Flying has approached Qantas seeking a response to the High Court challenge by the unions.

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