The government department responsible for overseeing federal workplace and employment conditions had to pay about $200,000 to rectify a more than $60,000 underpayment of 99 staff.
A Senate hearing heard the department’s secretary Natalie James learned about the prospect of an underpayment on June 15. She then spoke with Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke on July 25.
Affected staff did not receive the money owed to them until this week.
The ABC made multiple attempts to seek comments from Mr Burke’s office on Wednesday and Thursday.
On Thursday, his office declined to answer questions and instead referred the ABC to the departmental secretary’s comments on Wednesday.
Ms James told the hearing that she discussed the matter with Mr Burke in person.
Liberal senator Michaelia Cash asked if Mr Burke asked to receive a formal briefing about the matter.
“The minister did not request a briefing,” Ms James said.
“We talked through the issues and we endeavoured to keep him informed.”
When asked if Mr Burke had apologised to staff, Ms James initially said, “I’m not sure why he would, senator, it’s my responsibility”. When pressed she replied “the answer is no”.
Agriculture Minister Murray Watt, who appeared in the committee on behalf of Mr Burke, said underpayments should not occur.
“Wage underpayment should not occur in any circumstance,” he said.
“And where those wage underpayments are intentional, of course, we have legislation before the parliament to deal with that.”
Senator Watt later said: “The other obvious thing to say is that where those underpayments are detected they should be remedied at the first available opportunity.”
The underpayment occurred between July 7, 2022, and August 11, 2023.
It affected 99 employments, 93 of whom are current employees.
The payments varied from about $9 to more than $4,000, with the average of more than $630.
While the underpayment plus indexing cost almost $63,000, external legal and data costs totalled almost $200,000.
Officials attributed the underpayment to changes that resulted from departmental changes that occurred after the 2022 election.
The department self-reported to the Fair Work Ombudsman on August 9, 2023.
“This has been quite an extraordinary episode,” Senator Cash said in a statement.
“If the department responsible, Employment and Workplace Relations, struggles to pay its staff correctly what hope do small businesses have?’’
It is not the only department to have underpaid staff. In 2021, the Department of Finance confirmed it had underpaid 60 parliamentary employees over a four-year period.
Around the same time, the ABC confirmed it had underpaid current and former staff millions of dollars.