Pandemic caused stoppage of work, says Federal Court in Qantas stand down dispute

By Veronica Siow, Erin Mangan
Employment & Safety

In brief 3 min read

The Federal Court has confirmed that government restrictions on travel and quarantine measures stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic caused a stoppage of work for the purpose of stand downs initiated by Qantas and Jetstar under their enterprise agreements.

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) will now determine the legality of the stand downs by considering whether the stood-down employees could have been usefully employed.

How does this affect you?

In determining the cause of a stoppage of work, employers can look to the sequence of events that ultimately led to the stoppage. This means that, while employers cannot stand down employees simply due to a downturn in trade, standing down employees as part of a strategy to ensure the economic survival of a business may be justified, depending on the circumstances.

What was the dispute about?

The Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA) challenged the legality of the standing down of aircraft engineers by Qantas and Jetstar in March earlier this year. ALAEA argued that the stand downs were unlawful under the terms of the respective Qantas and Jetstar enterprise agreements because the aircraft engineers could still be usefully employed and there had been no real stoppage of work.

 The Federal Court was asked to determine:

  1. whether there was a stoppage of work; and
  2. if there was a stoppage of work, whether the stoppage was 'through any cause of which Qantas [could not] reasonably be held responsible' or 'by any cause, which Jetstar [could not] reasonably prevent.'

Outcome – stoppage of work due to COVID-19 pandemic

The Federal Court considered that the 'cause' of a stoppage of work is not limited to the immediate cause, but the sequence of events which ultimately led to the stoppage of work. The court found that the key events leading up to Qantas' decision to stand down the aircraft engineers included government-issued travel warnings advising against overseas travel, border controls and strict self-isolation and quarantine measures for international and domestic travellers. This meant an almost-total reduction in passengers travelling with the airlines and a drastic reduction in revenue.

Taking into account the sequence of events and financial implications arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Court concluded that the stoppage of work was not a 'cause for which Qantas [could reasonably] be held responsible' or a cause which Jetstar could 'reasonably prevent.'