Young workers at one of Australia’s largest pharmacy retailers say they were railroaded out of thousands of dollars of pay over the Summer, after working shifts under stringent COVID protocols through the peak of Australia’s Omicron wave.
As February draws to a close, these frontline workers – who have attracted the praise of politicians ad nauseam for their role in the nation’s economic rebound – say they are still waiting to be paid.
Olivia, a 21-year-old shop assistant at one of Chemist Warehouse’s franchise stores in Victoria, is one of them. She first grew suspicious of her shrinking pay packet in December last year, when Chemist Warehouse, like a handful of other retailers across the country, had run into trouble with its payroll software.
With payroll seemingly out of action, scores of workers weren’t being paid. Olivia’s area manager suggested she and the rest of her team fill out a manual pay request and return it to them, so the accounts team could process all of their wages manually.
“There were a couple of issues with that”. “[My area manager] would sometimes not punch in the right number [of hours worked], which meant we would then have to email payroll ourselves to get that resolved.”
Olivia claims her manager refused to communicate with each of the staff members directly. Instead, she says, all of the murkiness involved with getting paid for the work she had already done was trapped in an email thread only accessible by the computer inside the store where she worked.
“So, if you weren’t working that day, you wouldn’t see it. And it would be like, ‘You have to submit the correct hours by 9pm tonight’,” she said.
It’s no exaggeration.
In emails, one middle manager at Chemist Warehouse emailed the store around 2pm, presumably while employees were working on the shop floor, and ordered all staff to pore over their payslips, spot all errors, and have “all forms submitted back to us by 9:00PM TONIGHT!”, highlighted in fluro yellow.
By January 6, matters had only worsened. Some staff had struggled to pay rent, while others had to borrow money from family just to grab a bite to eat or cobble together the most basic of essential items. One worker said that, even at this point, they felt they were a “volunteer” workforce.
“We really started to lose hope,” she said.
In some payslips, the results of this pay period appear to have vindicated the workers’ concerns. Not only were the hours worked noted on payslips inaccurate enough for the underpayment to be felt, some were slashed in half or worse. Penalty rates were nowhere to be seen. Queries sent to managers of various tiers were received with tepid condolences: “Apologies for the inconvenience again.”
As the end of January started to near, Chemist Warehouse workers from across Victoria began to grow frustrated. Staffers had no idea how to contact their HR department and felt like their managers were avoiding them. Contacting the payroll team themselves started to seem like a never-ending nightmare. Workers felt stuck.
And this isn’t the first time the pharmacy giant has attracted criticism from its workforce.
In 2019, workers at three of Chemist Warehouse’s major distribution centres went on strike in the face of low pay and the company’s heavy reliance on contractors. At the time, strikers even accused the company of getting people to intimidate them for taking industrial action.
One striker in March 2019 said she had her tires slashed. Another called the police to report violence directed at the picket line. Chemist Warehouse’s director, Damien Gance, said he “expressly and unequivocally” denied allegations of any violence or unlawful conduct directed at the picket line.
Some workers claimed these types of alleged tactics, though perhaps with less of a violent tilt, are still being used to swindle workers out of truckloads of cash. Cullinan said he had seen his fair share of run-ins with the group on the Federal Court circuit, too.
For Olivia and her colleagues, though, legal action doesn’t seem like a viable option. Most of the workers impacted by the recent bout of wage discrepancies are under the age of 25. They’re casual workers, usually studying, trying to live a little. One worker said she wouldn’t even know where to start.
Even still, one of Olivia’s colleagues had a swing and got halfway there.
In a complaint submitted to the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), the Chemist Warehouse staffer tried to lay all the issues bare in an effort to find a way forward.
“They have withheld public holiday rates and penalty rates from staff for the month of December,” she said. “[They have] incorrectly paid our hourly rates for the month of January,” she continued. “When enquired [to], their answer[s] are ambiguous and do not give us a timeline on when staff can expect their back pay.”
The complaint raised more questions than it answered.
In response, an employee working the ombudsman’s hotline told the worker that she had just been underpaid all along. She was undertaking duties, like opening and closing her store, that were above her pay-grade. While it was only a difference of a dollar an hour, “it all adds up.”
Later, the FWO worker shared a resource with her: “The Employee’s Guide to Resolving Workplace Issues”. It would have been helpful – if she had an HR representative to direct her complaint to. But she still doesn’t.