Public holidays and your rights at work

Public holidays are days set by governments where you don’t have to go to work for the day, or part of the day.

You must still be paid your base rate of pay on a public holiday, unless you are a casual employee. These entitlements form part of the National Employment Standards.

Some public holidays, such as Anzac Day or Easter, have a traditional or religious background, while others, such as Labour Day (a fantastic holiday with a strong union history) have been hard won by your unions.

In fact, most rights and conditions you know enjoy were not just granted to working people – they had to be campaigned for and won by unions.

While there are some national public holidays across Australia, others fall on different dates.

Click or tap on your state/territory to get the 2023/24 public holidays. 

And take note: what counts as a public holiday can depend on where you are based for work, not where you are working that day.

So if you are working in Sydney, but your employer is based in Melbourne and the day you’re working is Victoria’s Labour Day, you are entitled to public holiday penalty rates.

Some dodgy bosses use this to avoid paying state-based public holiday penalty rates by locating themselves across state borders. When they do this, it’s a form of wage-theft.

Need more information? Missing out on public holidays? Contact your AWU delegate, or join the union!

What are penalty rates?

Penalty rates are extra payments you should get on top of your regular wage, usually worked out as a percentage of your regular wage.

They are intended to compensate you for time you spend working at inconvenient times, and came about in 1947, when unions argued in the Arbitration Commission that people deserved extra money for working outside normal hours.

Whether you’re a casual, part-time or full-time worker putting in hours on any public holiday, make sure you’re being paid your weekend and public holiday penalty rates.

As always, the best way to make sure you’re always getting paid correctly for your work is to contact your AWU delegate, or join the union!

Can they make me work on a public holiday?

Employees can refuse to work on a public holiday, but the refusal must be reasonable.

For that to happen the Fair Work Ombudsman says to consider the following:

  • The nature of your workplace and the work you do;
  • Your personal circumstances, such as caring responsibilities;
  • If you could reasonably expect your employer to ask you to work on the public holiday;
  • If you are entitled to receive penalty rates or other payments that reflect a normal expectation that you will work on public holidays;
  • Your type of employment (full-time, part-time, casual or shift work);
  • How much notice your employer gives you when making the request;
  • How much notice you give your employer by refusing;
  • Anything else that is relevant.

A recent Federal Court decision further clarified employer obligations regarding public holidays. Your employer can only require you to work on a public holiday if they have made a request, the request is reasonable, and any refusal to work is unreasonable in the circumstances. Your boss cannot just roster you to work, without making a request, or rely on a contractual term about working on public holidays. You can read the full judgement here: (CFMMEU v OS MCAP Pty Ltd [2023] FCAFC 51)

If you are unsure of your right to refuse work on a public holiday, contact your AWU delegate, or join the union!

Can I get paid for time off on a public holiday?

You may still be entitled to payment on a public holiday if you are absent for a day, or part of a day, that is a public holiday and you would ordinarily be working on that public holiday.

(Casual workers do not qualify under this entitlement, or part-time workers who do not work on the day the public holiday falls.)

If you are entitled to payment, your employer must pay you the base pay rate for your ordinary hours of work on that day. This excludes any bonuses, loadings, allowances, overtime, penalty rates or other additional payments.

Need more information? Contact your AWU delegate, or join the union!

Swapping public holidays for another day

Sometimes an award or enterprise agreement allows for a public holiday to be substituted for another day of the year. You can also make this agreement independently with your employer.

But if you swap a public holiday for another day, make sure:

  • You are paid as per your public-holiday entitlements;
  • You are still receiving the lawful amount of annual public holidays;
  • Your employer must not pressure you to swap. It must be agreed by both of you.

So don’t let yourself be pushed around. If your employer is trying to unfairly influence your decision, or messing with what you are owed, contact your AWU delegate, or join the union!

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