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More Cotton On Casual Staff To Get JobKeeper Payment Following Exclusion Outrage

Fashion retailer Cotton On will include an additional 200 staff in the JobKeeper program after casual workers claimed they were unfairly denied the wage subsidy.

Last week multiple Cotton On casual staff contacted 10 daily to say they had been denied requests for JobKeeper because they took leave in the last 12 months.

Some employees said the fashion retailer refused to include them in the wage subsidy scheme because they took approved extended leave.

Initially, 10 daily heard from four employees at Cotton On stores in Victoria and Western Australia who claimed they were told by their bosses that they did not meet the requirements for the subsidy, despite each being employed by the company for more than one year.

The staff members were allegedly told that despite meeting other relevant criteria, they did not meet the requirements of being a long-term casual employee on a "regular and systematic basis" because they took an extended break from work within the last 12 months.

After 10 daily's story was published, other Cotton On casual staff contacted the reporting team to claim they had been excluded from JobKeeper for similar reasons.

Jessica* has worked at a Melbourne Cotton On store since April 2018.

She said she received an email from her employer to say she was not eligible for JobKeeper because she had taken an approved holiday for six months in 2019.

Jessica said she was not taken 'off the books', nor had her employment terminated during her holiday, and she resumed employment with Cotton On after the break.

She said she contacted the Australian Tax Office, which is overseeing JobKeeper eligibility after she was told by her employer that they would reassess her claim if she could obtain written advice from the ATO about her eligibility.

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She said an ATO representative told her she was eligible, but they couldn't confirm it in writing because there was no protocol for the organisation to do so.

An ATO spokesperson said to be eligible for JobKeeper an employee must meet all the criteria listed on its website.

"A ‘long term casual employee’ is a person who has been employed on a regular and systematic basis for at least 12 months at 1 March 2020," the spokesperson said.

"You may be considered employed on a regular and systematic basis and therefore eligible for the JobKeeper payment where there is a pattern of work with hours offered and accepted regularly.

"The ATO is responding to written requests for advice in relation to JobKeeper matters. However public advice and guidance material (including answers to frequently asked questions) on our website is being regularly updated to address issues being raised."

Jessica said her case came down to her employer's interpretation of what "regular or systematic" employment was.

"It seems a little bit unfair when it comes down to something like my situation where I just took a period of time off to go on a holiday overseas, which as a casual I am allowed to do and it was also approved by my manager," she said.

"I never had to resign, they just said my position is still there when I come back I can go back to work, which is what happened, I was still on the books even though I went away."

Some Cotton On casual staff claimed they were unfairly denied JobKeeper before the employer reversed the decision to exclude some employees. Image: Getty

Sarah* also works at a Melbourne Cotton On store and believed she was unfairly denied JobKeeper.

She said she has been with Cotton On for about five years as a casual, working on average 25-30 hours a week.

She claimed she was told by her employer that she couldn't get JobKeeper because she also took an extended holiday of about three months in 2019.

It's just frustrating because I have been such a loyal employee to them and it just feels like they can't help us and if we can't go to Fair Work or the ATO we are just stuck with nothing.

On Friday the retail giant reversed its decision to exclude 200 casual staff from the JobKeeper program.

Cotton On's Chief Financial Officer Michael Hardwick told ABC News that the company was reassessing the eligibility of 176 more casuals after it was determined they did not meet eligibility requirements for the payment.

Cotton On says 5,500 staff were receiving JobKeeper so far. Initially, 2,500 were deemed ineligible for the payment but some of those cases are now being reviewed.

Hundreds Of Complaints About JobKeeper

Victorian Trades Hall Council Secretary Luke Hilakari said the organisation had received more than 300 complaints from workers across a variety of industries about JobKeeper via the recently launched tip-off service JobScammer.

"Experiences cover the full spectrum from bosses deliberately stealing part of their $1500 fortnightly payments, demanding people work more hours, to employers cherry-picking who gets the subsidy and who misses out," he said.

"Many of these stories amount to wage theft. No one should tolerate that behaviour, and especially during a pandemic -- when working people are already doing it tough. We will be naming and shaming bosses who are deliberately pinching money from the JobKeeper program."

There is no suggestion he was making these comments in relation to Cotton On.

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Hilakari said taking leave did not equate to a break in employment.

"Employers arguing that are attempting to dud workers out of the wage subsidy," he said.

"This is money they desperately need to put the next meal on the table and pay the bills. It’s not on."

Australian Council of Trade Union Secretary Sally McManus said that unions have been "overwhelmed" by complaints from casual workers of businesses all over the country who have missed out on JobKeeper.

'Left Me Out To Dry'

Tim* is also a Cotton On casual employee who said he was denied JobKeeper because he took time off work last year.

Tim said he had been working on average one-to-two shifts per week at a Perth store since 2018.

He said he took about two months off to study for uni, which was approved by his manager, but he was also never taken off the books and continued to receive paychecks during that period.

Tim said when he returned to work he was given shifts almost immediately and worked for Cotton On until stores closed due to COVID-19.

He said he provided Cotton On with evidence from the ATO that he was eligible for JobKeeper, but he was still denied the payment.

"They just left me out to dry," he claimed.

"Everybody keeps going back and forth and nobody wants to take responsibility."

Risky Business 

About 540,000 businesses nationwide have applied for the $1500 per fortnight wage subsidy, which covers an estimated 3.3 million employees, according to the treasury department.

According to a report released by the Grattan Institute, it's estimated about 40 percent of employed teenagers will lose work due to the COVID-19 shutdown. Workers aged 20-29 were the next most likely group to lose employment.

Director of Young Workers Centre Felicity Sowerbutts said young workers are more likely to be in insecure work and it's hard for them to speak up because it's often their first job and they don't know their rights.

"Young workers are telling us their employers are refusing to opt into JobKeeper, withholding payments, forcing those in casual work to work more hours and forcing them to carry out tasks they don’t normally do," Sowerbutts said.

"It just feels like the system is a bit flawed and for us, we feel like it's turned out really unfair and we've just got the short end of the stick here," Cotton On employee Jessica said.

"We've been loyal to the company for years ... and it just feels like there's no help for us."

A spokesperson for Cotton On Group told 10 daily the retailer was "continuing our work to ensure we have as many of our Australian team members supported by the Government’s JobKeeper subsidy as possible".

"For any of our team members who, for various reasons, haven’t met our initial interpretation of the JobKeeper regular and systematic provisions, we will continuously work with them, and our legal and tax advisors, to review and amend our interpretation if necessary."

*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity

Contact the author: vgerova@networkten.com.au