When can employers refuse a casual conversion request?

From August this year, new legislation will allow casual employees who believe they are no longer casual to request permanent employment. Under the new laws, what will constitute reasonable grounds to refuse a conversion request under the new ‘employee choice’ framework?

Following the recent passing of the Fair Work Amendment (Closing Loopholes No 2) Bill, employers will soon be subject to new laws governing the conversion of casual workers to permanent status – the ‘employee choice’ framework.

These changes, effective from 26 August 2024, will introduce a new definition of casual employment, along with new pathways for casual workers to convert to permanent employment if they wish to.

The new definition of casual employment shifts the focus from the terms of the employment contract to the practical reality of the employment relationship. This means that rejecting a casual worker’s request to become permanent will be more complex, since HR will no longer be able to lean on contracts to establish casual status.

However, these laws will also make it more difficult for casual workers to gain the protections of permanent employment, as the framework is only available if the employee no longer satisfies the definition of a casual employee. There will also still be many instances where an employer has reasonable grounds to refuse a request.

In preparation for the new legislation to come into effect, here are some key legal considerations to keep in mind when determining whether a casual worker is entitled to convert to permanent status.

Understanding new laws around casual conversion

One of the most significant changes coming from the new legislation is the removal of employers’ obligation to initiate casual conversion.

The process is transitioning from one which is reliant on the employer checking employment status and offering conversion accordingly to one that places the onus on employees to notify the employers that they no longer meet the definition of a casual and therefore should be permanent employees.

For HR, this shift has the potential to eliminate much of the busywork involved in checking on the length and status of employment and offering conversion to employees who may not wish to become permanent. The changes reflect the reality that many workers, particularly in sectors like retail and hospitality, are casual by choice and do not wish to lose the casual loading or flexibility this status gives them.

With that said, the upcoming legislation also has measures in place to allow workers who do wish to convert to permanent status to do so and gain protections such as paid leave, notice of termination and redundancy pay.

This is likely to have most impact in industries such as aged care, community services, childcare and labour hire companies, where work tends to be predictable, but where it has traditionally been challenging for some workers to convert to permanent status.

Particularly for employers in these industries, it’s crucial to understand what will constitute reasonable grounds to refuse a request under the new laws.

This is especially true in light of the increased anti-avoidance penalties for improperly engaging casual workers, which were introduced in February this year.

Employers now face significant civil penalties (up to $93,900 for individuals and $469,500 for body corporates) for breaches, such as dismissing or threatening to dismiss an employee with the plan to re-engage them as casual, making false statements to persuade an individual to enter a casual employment contract or misrepresenting employment as casual.

Read more about new laws for engaging casual workers and how they could impact your business here.

Grounds for refusing a casual conversion request

Under the new employee choice framework, employers can reject a request if the employee still fits the new definition of a casual employee. Employers will also retain the ability to reject a request based on fair and reasonable operational grounds.

These grounds are situations such as where converting a casual employee to a permanent status would cause significant disruption to the business operations or substantial changes would be required to the way in which the employer’s work is organised.

For instance, if the work is highly weather-dependent or heavily influenced by varying customer demand, employers may argue that maintaining a casual, flexible workforce is essential. Industries such as quarrying, where operations can be halted due to weather, or retail, where the volume of work varies greatly, are typical examples of where these grounds might apply.

“Even if an employee works a regular pattern of hours, this does not necessarily mean they are entitled to permanent employment.”

An employer can also reject a conversion request on the grounds that there is an absence of a firm advance commitment to continuing and indefinite (i.e. they still fall within the new definition of a casual employee).

Currently, the absence of a firm advance commitment is largely determined by the terms of a contract. Under the new legislation, to refuse a request on the basis that they still fit the definition of a casual employee, employers will need to demonstrate that there is no such commitment by assessing how the relationship plays out in reality and not just having regard to the terms of the contract.

This involves considering factors such as the employee’s ability to turn down shifts or the variability of their work hours. If an employee can decline work or if their schedule lacks consistency, that will support the notion that they still meet the casual employee definition.

Another factor that may be relevant is how far in advance an employee is informed of their shifts and patterns of work. This issue was raised in Workpac vs Skene, a 2018 Federal Court case where a casual worker was found to fit the definition of a permanent employee in part because he was provided with 12-month rosters in advance.

Employers may also assess whether there are full- or part-time employees performing exactly the same work as the casual employee. If this is the case, this can indicate the presence of a firm advance commitment to continuing and definite work, potentially making them eligible for permanent employment.

Importantly, even if an employee works a regular pattern of hours, this does not necessarily mean they are entitled to permanent employment.

Best practice for rejecting a casual conversion request

If an employer determines that the employee still meets the casual employee definition or they have fair and reasonable operational grounds kto refuse a request, it’s important to communicate this decision to the employee the right way.

When rejecting a request on the basis of fair and reasonable operational grounds, employers must clearly articulate the specific operational reasons for the rejection in writing, this might include outlining the business’s need for flexibility and any negative impact a permanent conversion might have.

It’s important to thoroughly communicate the context of customer needs or other variables, and why the current casual arrangement is necessary for their operations.

Providing clear and detailed written responses is crucial not only to avoid disputes, but also to help employees understand the decision, manage their expectations and avoid misunderstandings.

While employment contracts are no longer the sole factor in determining whether an employee is casual or not, it remains important to include clear contractual terms that align with the new definition of a casual employee, and keep clear records of the casual loading that has been paid to employees based on their employment status.

While the upcoming legislation aims to reduce the burden on employers whilst still providing a pathway for casual employees to convert to permanent status, employers may still have valid grounds to refuse these requests (such as because the employee still fits the casual definition, or due to fair and reasonable operational grounds). By assessing, documenting and clearly communicating their  reasons for rejection, employers can mitigate legal risk and maintain the necessary flexibility in their workforce.

Will Snow is a Director and Molly Shanahan is an Associate at Snow Legal.

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