On 19 December 2019, the NSW Government declared a State of Emergency with more than 4.4 million hectares of Australia’s east coast engulfed by bushfire, 1200 homes destroyed, 23 lives lost and 150 fires ablaze in NSW and Victoria alone to date.
With this much danger and destruction across the nation, the question becomes what are Australian employer’s legal responsibilities relating to employees who volunteer for organisations such as the State Emergency Service (SES) and the Rural Fire Service (RFS)?
Time away from the workplace by an employee for the purposes of affording services to the community are provided for within the National Employment Standards (NES) under Community Service Leave.
All employees, including casual employees, can access Community Service Leave for emergency management activities when natural disasters occur, such as the current bushfire crisis. Community Service Leave is generally unpaid leave unless your organisation has a leave policy that provides for paid leave in these situations.
The Fair Work Act 2009 specifies that an employee is entitled to take community service leave while they are engaged in the community activity, and for reasonable travel and rest time, with no limit on the amount of Community Service Leave that the employee can take. So, where does that leave you as an employer if your employee is called to fight the fires?
An employee who takes Community Service Leave must give their employer notice as soon as possible (which may be after the leave has started in emergency situations), and how long they expect the leave to last. As an employer, you are also entitled to ask for proof that an employee is entitled to Community Service Leave.
The RFS has a series of guidelines for employers, recognising them for the important role they play in ensuring the RFS volunteering program can continue to exist by releasing volunteers for firefighting duties. They suggest that a negotiation between employee and their employer is the best approach, with employers offering to release their employees on special leave or other working arrangements such as flexible hours.
As an employer you are not legally required to compensate an employee on Community Service Leave unless the employee requests to use some of their accrued Annual or Long Service Leave. Amidst the current natural catastrophe and with no end in sight for the fires, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called on Australian businesses to “take that role on” and assist during a time that has seen volunteers fighting fire since October with no compensation.
Since then, large Australian companies such as Woolworths, Coles, McDonalds and BHP, along with smaller organisations like Mitsubishi Motors Australia (102 employees) have all made paid Community Service Leave available to those employees who volunteer to the fire effort, mostly for an unlimited amount of time.
For those organisations who are unable to offer their employees paid Community Service Leave, they may be glad to hear that beginning January 2020, NSW volunteer firefighters currently employed by a small or medium-sized business will be entitled to receive $300 per day, tax free, up to a maximum of $6000 this financial year, after spending 10 days or more on the front lines.
As the country faces one of its worst natural disasters to date, it is important that you as an employer understand not only your legal responsibilities, but also your ethical ones.
Are you looking to implement a Community Service Leave policy? Do you need help planning for absences when employees must take leave because of natural disasters?