Dapto McDonald's has been accused of wage theft for "illegally" sending their teen workers on multiple unpaid breaks during quiet periods.
The Union for Workers in Retail, Fast Food and Warehousing (SDA) has labelled the practice a "disgrace" and said it will be conducting an audit of the local company-owned store and launching an investigation into the fast food giant "across the board".
Local mother Nicole*, who has engaged the union to help her claw back hundreds of dollars in lost wages for her daughter Amelia, said young casuals at Dapto McDonald's either aren't aware of their rights, are too scared to say no or are met with pushback if they do.
She said they are regularly spending eight hours at work but only being paid for five because the business tells them to take unpaid breaks when there's a lull in customers.
Despite her daughter working at the store for two years, Nicole said she only just found out about the amount of time Amelia and her workmates were spending off the clock.
"Basically what they're doing is when it's not busy, they just keep sending the kids on a break. It's absolutely not okay, it's not lawful," she said.
"Pretty much since she's been there and at least once a week and particularly this last public holiday, there were kids there that were scheduled for eight hours and they might have only worked five and went on three one-hour breaks," Nicole said.
"With the workplace laws, even on an eight-hour shift, a 30-minute break and two 10-minute breaks would be what they should have. Not three hours."
During four-hour shifts, Nicole said her daughter Amelia is regularly sent on an unpaid hour-long meal break, sometimes within the first hour, reducing her pay to just three hours.
In response to the claims, McDonald's Australia said casuals were not forced to take the breaks.
"We understand that the additional breaks were taken on a voluntary basis, and in agreement," a spokesperson said.
"We will assist any employee who has questions in relation to their entitlements.
"We work closely with our restaurants and franchisees, providing regular training, policies and resources to ensure all of our employees receive their correct workplace entitlements and pay."
SDA Branch Secretary-Treasurer Bernie Smith said the explanation was unacceptable and called the company's practices "illegal" and "wage theft".
"All of those practices are a breach of the award and amount to wage theft.
"All of these practices are effectively this massive profitable business pushing all the risk of quiet times onto the worker - if it's quiet the worker is being told to wear the cost of it rather than McDonald's. It's outrageous.
"The company should know better. When will McDonald's learn?
"McDonald's is currently before the Federal Court facing allegations of a multimillion dollar underpayment related to young workers' breaks.
"I cannot believe this week we are here again with McDonald's having their fingers in young workers' pay."
Nicole said there was a power imbalance between children and management and they should never have been put in a position where they had to turn down a request.
When she first became aware of the amount of time her daughter - who she describes as "a good worker who goes above and beyond" - was spending at work not being paid, she wanted answers.
"I asked her, 'Do you volunteer to do that?" Nicole said.
"She goes, no, they just say 'you can go on a break' and I just kept going on the breaks.
"And I said, 'well, you say no then,' and my daughter goes, 'I can't say no, oh my God, I'll be in so much trouble'."
Amelia said at first she didn't know she had the right to say no to managers and more recently didn't want to rock the boat.
"I say yeah, but I've seen other people say no and they're like, 'well, yes, you can' and they just kind of go."
About six weeks ago, local dad Josh's 16-year-old son Sam* worked up the courage to say no to extra breaks.
"When you're 14 and you're just starting out, you're reluctant to tell the boss that you don't want to go on a break, you're just going to do what you're told," he said.
"He's been there a couple of years now, so it's a bit easier.
"Realistically they're just using them because they're young and taking advantage of them."
While refusing to go on breaks has sometimes worked for Sam, there are times is hasn't.
"My son asked to leave early and not take the unpaid break and he was told no," Josh said.
"When he questioned why he had to take the break he was told 'because I said so'."
Sam said he had also been told there was nothing he could do about it because he was a casual.
Both Nicole and Josh said it was also common for the staff to regularly turn up for work at their rostered start time only to be told to take a seat for half-an-hour while it's quiet.
"He'll arrive at 5pm and then get told don't start til 5.30pm," Josh said.
"You've already left after dropping him off, they've told him this and then he's sitting there in the dining room for a half-hour waiting to start work.
"My son was told again to start 30 minutes late after arriving at work. He refused three times and started on time."
While so far Sam has not experienced any loss of hours aside from the one cancelled shift, his dad fears it's just a matter of time.
"They're probably going to inevitably stop rostering him on because why would you want to employ the 16-year-old kid who's going to push back and not take the unpaid break when you can employ a 14-year-old who will happily go and take the unpaid break?" Josh said.
Mr Smith encouraged casual fast food workers to join the union as the SDA worked to "make sure this gets cleaned up for everybody".
"Now this has come to light, we'll be investigating this across the board because this is a corporate store, not one of the franchises, and if it's able to occur in a corporate store then their clock-in system is set up to allow this to happen, which is of grave concern.
"In 2023 McDonald's USA brought back the Hamburglar to promote their takeaway burgers - but in 2023 McDonald's Dapto seems to have brought back the Hamburglar to take away vulnerable young workers' time and pay."
McDonald's told the Mercury the company "values our employees highly and the great contribution they make to the success of the business".
"We want to assure employees and parents that McDonald's is very mindful of our obligations under applicable employment laws, including the Fast Food Industry Award."
*Names have been changed
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