Shoppers pushing trolleys through endless aisles of bare shelves – it’s one of the pandemic’s enduring images. Who could forget?  

Retail was one of the few sectors to enjoy growth throughout the lockdowns, forcing many business owners to rethink their workforce model in response to dramatic spikes in demand. One of the most effective solutions proved to be hiring casual employees.  

Casuals unloaded deliveries, stocked shelves, wrung-up purchases, packed online orders, and kept retail businesses ticking over when a helping hand was needed most. 

To be clear, temporary and casual staffing in retail is nothing new. Retail businesses have always been heavily affected by seasonality, often hiring casual employees for Christmas, January sales, and other peak periods. However, recent years have seen a shift in retail’s mindset toward casuals. 

A shift in mindset  

With staffing needs in retail climbing, the casual workforce is no longer seen as just a short-term fix, but an integral part of the toolkit for maintaining your business operations.  

ABS reports that Australia’s retail sector is steadily growing, and so too are its staffing needs. For retailers forced to constantly adjust the size of their workforce, casual employees could be the key to sustainability.  

Casual employees are popular among retailers, especially SMEs working within financial constraints, because they offer businesses a scalable workforce that can be expanded or trimmed at short notice. Ultimately, what they want is flexibility. 

Keeping casuals engaged 

What do casuals want? If you intend to keep your casual employees engaged and productive, it’s crucial to meet their core needs.  

Consider your casuals: Work with your casual staff to establish practices that account for the flexibility of this type of employment. This could include maintaining methods for casuals to communicate changes to their availability for shifts, setting expectations about how and when work will be offered, and ensuring that your rostering practices are compliant with your modern award.  

For example, many awards contain minimum engagements for casual employees, meaning that you must roster or pay a casual employee for a particular amount of time on each occasion they are engaged.  

To get the most out of your casuals and not expose yourself to claims for underpayment or a contravention of your modern award, it’s important to understand your award and any specific rostering requirements and terms it provides. 

Create a casual-friendly culture: Casual employees don’t get the same entitlements as other permanent staff, so you’ll have to go the extra mile to make them feel valued. This starts with creating a company culture that supports casual employees.  

Ensure casuals receive a formal company induction and involve them in training, company events and team socials.  

Fair pay: Casual employees receive a higher pay rate to compensate for their reduced entitlements. Casual loading is made on top of a casual employee’s fixed hourly wage, normally calculated at an extra 25%, although an Award or Enterprise Agreement may specify a different amount. 

An honest day’s work always deserves an honest day’s pay, and underpaying your casuals could break the relationship beyond repair.

Practical tips for employing casuals  

When it comes onboarding casuals, there are a few essential steps you should always follow: 

  • Induct the new casual as you would a permanent employee – this will build a stronger relationship and help them hit the ground running.  
  • Confirm the terms of employment in a written employment contract and clearly lay out the terms specific to casual employment.  
  • Provide them with a Casual Employee Information Statement. This outlines details about the conditions of their employment, including ‘casual conversion’ (whereby a casual can request or choose to convert to part-time or full-time employment).  
  • Provide them with a copy of The Fair Work Information Statement.  

It’s important to understand that not supplying casuals these documents is a contravention of The Fair Work Act (2009).  

Casuals and The Fair Work Act 

A definition of casual employment was inserted into The Fair Work Act in 2021. An employee is categorised as casual if they accept an offer of employment with no advance commitment from the employer to continuing and indefinite work.  

Your casual contracts and letters of offer should not include any set hours or guarantees to provide work. Instead, always hire and roster casuals on an “as required” basis. 

It is important to note that this definition is currently under review by the federal government and may be subject to change in the future. Make sure that you stay on top of developments in relation to employing casuals.  

Rostering and paying casuals 

Be mindful that giving casuals a regular or systematic pattern of work may allow them to access paid entitlements, or even support an unfair dismissal claim. 

Working on a regular and systematic basis doesn’t require the employee to work every week or on the same days. There only needs to be some sort of discernible regular pattern in their work. Employers have been caught out before because they’ve failed to understand that regular doesn’t necessarily mean “frequent”. 

As mentioned above, the government has recently proposed further changes to the definition of casual employment in the Fair Work Act, so it is more important than ever to ensure that you are structuring your business so that your casual employees are working as genuine casual workers.  

Are casuals right for you? 

Finally, be sure to weigh up your options. The short-term nature of their work means that casual staff may not always buy-in to your business’s vision, goals and mission. Plus, they don’t have to accept the shifts you offer them.  

If what you need is full commitment, reliability and an employee who is working to a fixed or regular pattern of work, consider part-timers or full-timers instead.  

While permanent employees do gain access to leave entitlements, they have a lower up-front cost because you won’t need to pay casual loading. 

Finally, consider a hybrid model.  You may choose to build a blend of part-time, full-time and casual staff, giving you a baseline workforce and the flexibility to supplement staffing requirements with casuals during your busiest periods.    

Stephen Roebuck is associate director of advice & consultancy at Employsure.