Virgin Australia is being sued for its decision to stand down hundreds of ground staff for three weeks, just ahead of the Easter long weekend.
It also comes as the JobKeeper wage subsidy expired over the weekend, which had provided crucial life support for the aviation industry as it struggled to keep afloat during the pandemic.
The Transport Workers Union (TWU) will argue on behalf of the workers that the airline breached terms of the enterprise agreement by standing down 800 staff from 29 March to 18 April without first consulting them.
It is seeking an order from the Fair Work Commission (FWC) that Virgin was not authorised to stand down its “pit crew”, that the airline is required to roster them for their ordinary hours in the next three weeks, and they should be paid their Easter penalty rates.
However, Virgin disputes the union’s claim, saying only 170 staff were affected, and that any allegations it “fully stood down its ground crew in the wake of JobKeeper ending are categorically false”.
The company also said “the majority of ground staff affected are currently working close to their full normal hours” and that “none are fully stood down”.
In a letter sent to its staff on Thursday, Virgin said the stand-down direction was due to a “limitation on the availability of work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic which means that you cannot be employed for your normal days/hours of work”.
It pre-dated the Queensland government’s decision, on Monday, to put Brisbane in a snap lockdown to deal with its growing COVID clusters.
Virgin has confirmed that affected workers are based nationally, not just in Brisbane.
TWU national secretary, Michael Kaine, said the decision would put serious financial strain on workers and their families.
“This disastrous move by [Prime Minister] Scott Morrison means domestic aviation workers have been cut adrift and Virgin workers are now worried sick about how they will pay their bills and feed their families,” he said.
Under Virgin’s enterprise agreement with workers represented by the TWU, the airline is allowed to stand down workers if its workload dries up because of a “catastrophic event” like a pandemic.
But in its FWC application, the union is arguing Virgin’s reason was not genuine.
It claims some of the airline’s workers had already been working over and above “their normal working arrangements” in the past two to three months, and said one employee had worked 88.45 hours in the previous fortnight