The Star Observer has been taken to the Fair Work Commission by one of its journalists, who claims it underpaid him over a period of several months and misled him over the nature of his role.

Miles Heffernan, a former human resources professional who began freelancing several years ago before becoming one of the Star Observer‘s key contributors, says he was paid $600 a week over a period of several months to work full-time, taking on a range of responsibilities.

The Star Observer‘s chairman, however, says Heffernan was a contractor and has been paid his full dues.

The legal challenge is one of two Heffernan is launching. Another, in Federal Court, will seek punitive damages against the Star Observer‘s publisher, Gay and Lesbian Publishing Limited. It comes as the Star Observer undertakes a crowdfunding campaign to shore up its finances amid legal threats, a challenging advertising market and a costly move to monthly publication.

Crikey has obtained a copy of the general protections application lodged with the Fair Work Commission yesterday.

In it, Heffernan makes the claim that he was engaged from “24 October 2013 to 10 January 2014 as a contractor, and then became an employee, and am employed on an ongoing basis”.

He says he was first engaged as a “guest editor” while the current editor worked out his notice period at his former role. He was then told he could stay on “two days per week”, but ended up working full-time, sometimes from as early as 5am until as late as midnight. “Staff reporting to the Applicant [Heffernan] got paid for hours worked but the applicant did not,” the application claims. Instead, Heffernan says he was paid just $600 a week. Given the duties he was performing, Heffernan claims, he should have been paid at band 3 of the Journalists Published Media Award, which requires a weekly rate for such duties of at least $1196.20.

The application states:

“The entire period from October 2013 to 10 January 2014 was a sham contract where the Applicant earned considerably under the award minimum conditions and was performing the role of an employee in all ways, except the arrangement enriched the company by avoiding the award conditions to severe detriment to the Applicant.”

From December 2013, Heffernan claims, it was agreed that he would become a “fixed-term employee” for 13 weeks. During this time, Gay and Lesbian Publishing CEO Daniel Bone allegedly promised incentives for overtime, but never delivered. Heffernan says Bone admitted to underpayment. “The Applicant was desperate to get permanent work as a journalist and had no real bargaining position, other than to accept Mr Bone’s promises, which were in hindsight simply unsustainable lies,” the application states.

“If the Star are battling a ‘perfect storm’ of litigation, the community has a right to know what went wrong, where and by how much, as they are being asked to chip in more than $100K to dig the executives out of the hole they have put themselves in.”

Heffernan also claims he wrote 80% of the Star Observer‘s AIDS 2014 publication, but was paid only $200 for this.

Crikey asked Gay and Lesbian Publishing chairman Sebastian Rice whether the claims were true, and he responded that Heffernan was “a contractor”.

“We have always paid our employees their full entitlements due under their employment contracts. The claims made by this particular contractor are without merit, and contradicted by extensive documentary evidence,” he said.

Heffernan told Crikey he was aware he could jeopardise Star Observer‘s crowdfunding campaign, which, if it fails, would mean it was less likely he would be paid. “By me talking about this publicly, I’m running the risk of doing myself a disservice, but this is important,” he said. “I have made repeated attempts to communicate about my significant underpayments and other issues, however Daniel Bone has ignored me and he has also ignored the union for more than a month.

“The Star Observer are conducting an ambitious community appeal, so I really think it’s essential that they front up and be as honest as possible about the true nature of why they are in this situation. It’s not about investigative journalism — it’s about far broader issues like expensive offices on Oxford Street, overpriced design costs, a poorly handled transition with advertisers when morphing into a monthly publication and having the right CEO to manage a sales force that can deliver in a difficult market — with some unscrupulous competitors — and one who can build and motivate the team during tough times.

“If the Star are battling a ‘perfect storm’ of litigation, the community has a right to know what went wrong, where and by how much, as they are being asked to chip in more than $100K to dig the executives out of the hole they have put themselves in.”

Rice responded: “The Star Observer has needed to deal with a number of serious legal matters over the last few years. Those matters have primarily been in the areas of defamation and commercial matters, such as bad debts incurred when companies have chosen not to pay for contracted advertising.”

“The individual who has made the accusations you are referring to was a short-term contractor who worked entirely from his home. The individual had no access to internal Star Observer documents covering these issues and was not involved in managerial discussions that related to these matters.

“The Star Observer is a small not-for-profit social enterprise. Any legal threat is a serious drain on our resources and damaging to our finances. We have been very clear that our fundraising campaign is necessary because of a series of legal threats have weakened our organisation.”

The Star Observer is Australia’s oldest gay newspaper and was instrumental in helping raise awareness of AIDS and fight for broader community concern about the disease. It has faced financial difficulties in recent years. Speaking to On The Line host Dean Beck on Joy FM yesterday, CEO Daniel Bone said the publication “hasn’t got a healthy warchest” for legal challenges. He declined to comment on the challenges, saying it “wouldn’t be appropriate” to discuss ongoing threats. He also rejected claims the Star Observer owed staff money.

Heffernan paid tribute to the Star Observer, saying it had “cool-headed journos and a gutsy editor”. However, he took exception to claims the publication still conducted much investigative journalism. “To make out that it’s all about investigative journalism plays the punter as a mug, especially as the publisher has become so risk-averse this year.”

The claim that the Star Observer no longer conducts investigative journalism was also raised by Beck on his show yesterday. Bone strongly rejected the assertion, saying the current edition, which features an investigation of homophobia in schools, was proof of its journalistic bona fides.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.