Deliveries provider CouriersPlease has committed to making a $50,000 “gesture of contrition” over a payroll error relating to meal breaks, in what Fair Work has said should serve as a warning to other employers.
The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) said in a statement on Friday (29 November) that the implementation of an electronic payroll system in 2010 had seen CouriersPlease overlook the provision of 20-minute paid meal breaks for shift workers, as stipulated under the relevant industry award.
It was only discovered in 2018 after an internal audit prompted by a query from an employee.
According to FWO, the oversight meant that CouriersPlease had underpaid 245 current and former employees by a total of $382,065 — with underpayments ranging in size from below $10 to in excess of $19,000.
The company has repaid over $360,000 of the funds, with CouriersPlease continuing to track down other workers owed the remaining funds.
Ombudsman Sandra Parker said that a court-enforceable undertaking, rather than penalties, was an appropriate form of regulatory action, given that the courier service had “demonstrated a strong commitment to back-paying workers”.
As part of the undertaking, CouriersPlease is required to publicly display notices of the breaches, including online and in the workplace, with information about worker entitlements, fund training for HR and payroll staff and making the $50,000 contrition payments to the federal Consolidated Revenue Fund.
Company expresses ‘deep regret’
Asked for its response to the situation, CouriersPlease issued a statement to My Business in which it expressed regret at the “unintentional oversight”.
“CP prides itself on being a positive and rewarding workplace that complies with all of its obligations. This was an unintentional oversight which we deeply regret,” it said.
“CouriersPlease has evolved as a company in recent years. During this time, a proportion of our employees have transitioned from ordinary hours to shift work. Regrettably, in this period, a payroll oversight occurred in which the 20-minute meal break was unpaid to those employees.
“As soon as CP became aware of the oversight, we voluntarily alerted the Fair Work Ombudsman. We have identified and apologise to all affected past and present employees. To date, we have back-paid more than 95 per cent of affected employees, and are in the final stages of our correspondence with, and back payments to, former employees.
“We are working with the Fair Work Ombudsman to ensure we have taken all the necessary actions to rectify the underpayment and ensure such an oversight does not occur in the future. This includes Fair Work-approved training to all CP employees responsible for management, recruitment, payroll and human resources; annual Fair Work-approved audits of our compliance with all Commonwealth workplace laws and instruments; and regular reporting to Fair Work with regard to our payment obligations to depot and freight employees.”
Warning to all employers
“This matter serves as a warning to all employers that if you don’t prioritise workplace compliance, you risk failing to meet your lawful obligations to your employees every shift they work over many years, and facing a hefty back payment bill,” Ms Parker said.
“The court-enforceable undertaking commits CouriersPlease to stringent measures to protect their employees, including developing new systems to ensure future compliance, funding external audits over the next two years and rectifying any further underpayments.”
The courier’s error is the latest in a series of high-profile instances of businesses underpaying staff as a result of problems with their payroll systems, which the Australian Payroll Association has attributed, at least in part, to outdated payroll software.
The most expensive instance revealed to date has been that of supermarket giant Woolworths, which revealed in October a shortfall of as much as $300 million in the pay and entitlements for more than 5,000 of its employees, also dating back to 2010.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.