Fair Work Ombudsman takes legal action against Coles after allegations of excessive overtime and low wages were made by supermarket managers.

Erika Macdonald, a former manager at Coles, has stated that during the times when she was under the most intense pressure, she was only able to get one or two hours of sleep per night.

  • The Fair Work Ombudsman has initiated legal proceedings against Coles, alleging that the company underpaid thousands of store managers between the years 2017 and 2020.
  • A separate class action lawsuit has been filed against the supermarket giant on behalf of 2,200 of its current and former salaried employees.
  • According to Coles, the company has issued an apology to all of the affected employees and either reimbursed or set aside $23 million for remediation.

She says that if she were to wake up in the middle of the night, her first thought would be, "I've still got so much to do."

"I would start working at one in the morning, which meant that I had to get up at one in the morning."

Ms. Macdonald began working for the supermarket giant in Perth in 2016 as a contractor. Over the course of the following three years, she rose through the ranks to become a regional manager overseeing 120 employees who were responsible for cleaning and collecting trolleys across 11 stores.

She claims that in the end, she was putting in up to 80 hours of work each week in order to meet the goals that were set by her superiors.

"Taking more than one hundred and twenty calls in a single day was nothing out of the ordinary for me during the Christmas season." "

She claims that she had such a severe lack of sleep that she passed out behind the wheel several times while driving between stores.

According to Ms. Macdonald, managers in her role were not only required to meet performance goals, but they were also compared to one another on a "ladder."

She tells him, "Even if you achieve your budget and achieve your targets, you could still be number eight in the region." "Even if you achieve your budget and achieve your targets," she says.

According to her, Coles would call her into his office and ask, "Why are you number eight?" You are going to need to look into this and improve. '

She claims that the pressure caused her to experience extreme anxiety, which ultimately led her to file a claim for workers' compensation in January of the previous year.

A middle-aged woman with short hair and glasses is being interviewed for TV. She wears a serious expression.
Ms. Macdonald would like to draw attention to the problems of excessive work and inadequate pay in the retail industry. ( ABC News: Robert Koenigluck )

Because of the "excessive hours" and "excessive demands" of her job, Coles sent her for an evaluation of her mental health, and the psychiatrist who examined her diagnosed her with an adjustment disorder accompanied by insomnia.

She was able to get clearance from the psychiatrist to go back to work, but only if she worked fewer hours in the morning.

However, Coles informed her that there were no positions of that nature available, and they later offered her a redundancy package.

She describes it as "devastating" in her words.

"There is simply no commitment on the company's part." There is no give and take Simply put, we will take you, and if we are unable to make use of you, you will be released. "

Ms. Macdonald claims that because of the traumatic nature of her experience, she is unable to bring herself to go into a Coles store at this point in time.

Coles has chosen not to comment on the situation involving Ms. Macdonald.

Ms. Macdonald is a member of a class action lawsuit that is being brought on behalf of Coles employees. The lawsuit contends that the nation's second-largest private employer has underpaid its salaried managers by more than $300 million over the past decade.

She has high hopes that the case will bring attention to the widespread problems of underpayment and overwork in the retail industry.

Putting profits ahead of people, as she puts it, is something that "has to change," she says.

"You can't just chase the bottom line and think that it won't have an impact on the people who are delivering that bottom line for you," the speaker said. "You can't do that."

"Take care of your employees, and the money will take care of itself." "

A bright red and white Coles sign at a supermarket at night.
According to statements made by Coles, the underpayments affect approximately one percent of the company's workforce. ( The Andrew Altree-Williams Show on ABC News )

The class action lawsuit was filed at the same time that the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) filed a lawsuit against Coles regarding the alleged underpayment of the company's managers. According to the FWO, the underpayment will amount to more than one hundred million dollars between 2017 and 2020.

Following the filing of proceedings in the Federal Court one week ago, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) issued a statement alleging that one worker was underpaid a total of $471,647 during the relevant time period.

Underneath those cold statistics are the anecdotes of almost 8,000 Coles managers, such as Ms. Macdonald, for whom the allegations not only represent underpayment but also years of stress and anxiety while working for the supermarket giant.

Following the filing of the lawsuit by the FWO the previous week, Coles issued a statement to the stock market stating that it was "reviewing the proceedings... and to the extent that further remediation may be required, we will update the market accordingly."

Coles initially disclosed in February of the previous year that it had uncovered underpayments totaling approximately $20 million, which affected approximately 1% of its total staff.

It says in its most recent statement that it has offered its sincere apologies to the affected members of staff and either reimbursed or set aside $23 million for the purpose of remediation.

But according to Rory Markham, principal of Adero Law, who is leading the class action lawsuit against Coles, the company has grossly underestimated the amount of employees who were not paid properly.

"There is no allowance for overtime or excessive hours when you're paid a flat salary, as is the case with Coles managers," he says. "When you're paid a flat salary."

A young man with short hair in a suit poses for a photo in an office.
Rory Markham, principal of Adero Law, is leading the class action lawsuit on behalf of over 2,000 current and formerly employed Coles workers. ( The David Maguire Report from ABC News )

According to him, data collected from the approximately 2,200 salaried employees who have enrolled in the class action show that these individuals worked an average of 55 to 65 hours per week, which is significantly more than their typically contracted roster of 40 hours.

Mr. Markham is quoted as saying, "The real concern with Coles is that their system of staffing and resourcing reflects a budget and a desire to achieve a sale rather than the reality of how many hours it actually takes to achieve that sale."

Rostering system underestimates needs for staff, former manager says

ABC Investigations has obtained a copy of the user manual for OneTeam, the sales-data-driven rostering system used by Coles. This system is known as

Even though the document is from 2018, it is widely believed that the system has not changed significantly.

Coles has declined to comment on the specifics of how the system works, but the company's manual makes it abundantly clear that part-time and casual shifts in the company's supermarkets are assigned based on projections of future product sales.

The number of shifts in an organization increases when more labor-intensive products are sold.

For example, in the bakery department, sales of doughnuts and bread baked in-store generate more hours than sales of bread purchased from outside vendors.

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According to the manual, "OneTeam provides us with a simple way to roster the appropriate team at the appropriate time." "

But according to Daragh Whelan, who managed a store in Melbourne's outer east, OneTeam routinely underestimated the number of shifts that were required to complete all of the work.

According to him, this meant that salaried managers were routinely required to take on additional responsibilities after part-time and casual employees had finished their shifts.

Darah presents a bag with a reindeer on it to a female Coles customer whose face is blurred.
According to Daragh Whelan, the rostering system used by Coles does not take into account the amount of time that is required to complete certain tasks. ( Supplied )

"In essence, the department manager or the store manager has got to stay back and just do it themselves," he says. "It's their responsibility."

"This was occurring on a daily basis, and we were required to take on work that was unable to be completed due to a lack of hours." "

He claims that in addition to that, he was under a lot of pressure to complete tasks that OneTeam's calculations did not take into account.

"OneTeam allotted you four hours per day to perform some light cleaning duties throughout the store. "

However, according to him, Coles "expected everything to be fully faced and perfect," which could take up to a whole day.

During the height of the panic buying and hoarding that occurred at supermarkets at the beginning of the pandemic last year, Mr. Whelan claims that he was working up to 18 hours per day.

He asserts that "it was actually impossible to manage the store and...maintain any sort of standard because you were just working minute to minute," and he gives the reason as "just working minute to minute."

He claims that the long hours had a significant negative impact on his family, including his ability to assist his wife and son at home when they were younger.

He claims, "I wouldn't be able to contribute as much as I should at home, or I'd be irritable or absent minded because my mind was half on work."

Since then, he has been given a diagnosis of severe depression as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, both of which, according to him, are directly related to his employment with Coles as well as his departure from that position.

A young man with short dark hair and a beard sits at his dining table looking into camera with a serious expression.
Mr Whelan says the demands of his job impacted his family life ( The Andrew Altree-Williams Report from ABC News )

Mr. Whelan claims that Coles discriminated against him because he spoke out against the company's employment policies.

In April of this year, Coles removed Mr. Whelan from his position as store manager, accusing him of drastically marking down products for his own financial gain and engaging in other unethical business practices.

He claims that he was accused of engaging in fraudulent practices and that he was subsequently escorted off the premises "with no real explanation or no question as to what my explanation or side of the story might have been."

After several months of understaffing at the store and pleading for additional assistance, he emailed Coles to say that he could not "cope with any more pressure," and he asked for his suspension less than a week after sending the email.

Daragh and three other Coles staff in uniform pose for a photo pointing at a meat display.
In April, Mr. Whelan's employment at Coles was abruptly terminated when the company placed him on administrative leave. ( Supplied )

"I was in complete and utter disbelief," he says.

"In a nutshell, I had a bit of a nervous breakdown." "

An electric razor, a package of toilet paper, and a bottle of tomato sauce were among the items that he allegedly marked down and sold to himself. He was accused of doing this.

Although Mr. Whelan maintains that he did not violate the company's code of conduct, he resigned in July after receiving a first and final warning for his actions.

Since then, he has filed a claim for unfair dismissal against Coles, accusing the company of humiliating him to the point where he was unable to go back to work there.

Coles has declined to participate in an interview and has not provided responses to questions, citing its inability to comment on pending legal matters as the reason for its decision.

However, in its defense that was filed in the unfair dismissal proceedings, it states that the disciplinary action was warranted and denies that Mr. Whelan was targeted because of his email.

It states that an investigation into Mr. Whelan's markdowns had already begun before the letter that he wrote was even received.

Daragh presents flowers to a female Coles team member, whose face has been blurred.
Mr. Whelan claims that in the wake of his suspension, he was left feeling so ashamed that he was unable to go back to work. ( Supplied )

Mr. Whelan had a childhood fantasy of working his way up through the ranks at Coles to eventually become a senior executive at the company's headquarters in Melbourne.

But now, he claims that entering a Coles location brings back memories of the stress and unpaid overtime he was required to endure for almost a decade in exchange for promotions and the promise of significant pay raises. This was done in exchange for the opportunity to advance his career.

"They are so intent on squeezing every cent that they can out of every single situation and scenario that they can," he says. "They will not rest until they have made every last penny that they possibly can."

"When you are able to deliver it, you will be a hero." But you'll go to zero just as quick

"It's a kind of death loop with the carrot dangling in front of you," the speaker said.

"You fool yourself into thinking that you'll get there, and then you work yourself to exhaustion in order to get there, but you never actually get there." "

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Pat McGrath and Alison McClymont, both formerly employed as managers at Coles, have spoken publicly about the working conditions they were subjected to during their time there.
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