May 11, 2024 • 9 min read

Can Employers Actually Make Employees Work on Public Holidays?

Curious about your rights? Keep reading to find out if bosses can legally make their staff work on public holidays or, conversely, make them take annual leave.

Written by: Stephen Zeng

Learning about work rights and obligations will prevent you from getting taken advantage of or unwittingly breaking the law. This is especially important for those of us who are just starting to make our way back into the workforce and need clarity on murky topics like working on public holidays.

While it can be daunting to stand up for yourself in the workplace, it obviously won’t hurt to know when the law is on your side. In this article we explore the debate surrounding public holidays and declare once and for all: Whose rights, and who’s wrong?

Can Employers Make Employees Work on Public Holidays?

Employers may request for staff to work on a public holiday, provided the request is reasonable.

However, employees have the right to refuse. In most cases, refusal to work on a public holiday is likely to be considered reasonable. Full-time employees who reasonably refuse to work on a public holiday must still receive their normal salary for that day.

How Are Public Holiday Pay Rates and Entitlements Determined?

Workers governed by award or enterprise agreements are generally entitled to receive penalty rates for hours worked. Employees not covered by an agreement are not entitled to additional benefits unless specified.

If there is an overlap of public holidays on a weekend, typically the higher of the penalty rates will be regarded as the applicable rate of pay.

Can Employers Make Employees Use Their Annual Leave Over the Holidays?

“In compliance with employment laws, employers can direct employees covered by award or enterprise agreements to take annual leave if specified by the relevant agreement.”

For agreement-free employees, a directive to take annual leave is acceptable if it is considered reasonable. Reasonable circumstances for directing annual leave include situations where an employee has accrued excessive leave or during temporary business shutdowns, such as the holiday period between Christmas and New Year.

What if an Employee Doesn’t Have Enough Leave?

The award or enterprise agreement could include provisions to take unpaid leave. In cases where the agreement does not cover this situation, compelling them to take unpaid leave during the period is unlikely. The employee should receive their normal rate of pay during the shutdown period.

*The details in this article were correct and current when it was written. However, changes in business practices, policies, and other pertinent areas may have occurred since then. Readers should confirm the current validity of the content on their own.

Stephen Zeng
Stephen is the director and the principal writer at AusRehab, leading workplace rehabilitation provider, with a focus on addressing and resolving workplace injuries.

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