Bush Fires – rights and responsibilities of employers and employees

Posted By Chris Delaney / Uncategorised / No Comments

Without doubt 2019/2020 has produced unprecedented Bush Fires throughout Australia.

Employees involved in volunteer emergency services have been working tirelessly to reduce the effect on the community, while others have been affected through loss of property, and or disruption to their everyday activities, their families and businesses. This has created significant pressure on both employees and their employers.

For employers problems range from minor inconvenience to complete shutdown, with often no opportunity of returning to normal business in the short term. It can be a time of great financial uncertainty and worry for affected business operators and their workers.

Employers worry about the cost, while workers are concerned about their financial security and the safety and security of their families

The fires continue to burn and it will take many months before business and the community will see any appreciable improvement.

These are exceptional circumstances and although there are rights and responsibilities for both employers and employees there can always be agreement on special arrangements to support the relief effort and those involved in it.

Employers, need to consider their obligations to workers who, through no fault of the employer or the employee:

  • have no work to do because the business premises are damaged or closed;
  • can’t get to work because of road closures or disruption transport etc.;
  • are unable to come to work because of their own circumstances including family responsibilities and/or property damage or loss;
  • want to be or are engaged in emergency service work or the recovery effort;

Here we explore the often-asked questions from members and how Australian workplace law approaches these problems:

 

Q1. My business operations are badly affected and I have no work for some or all of my employees. Do I have to pay them when I can’t provide work for reasons beyond my control?

Usually yes– there are some exceptions, some awards will have stand down provisions for this and/or similar situations. Seek professional advice.

Standing down employees

Businesses may consider standing employees down in circumstances where:

  1. Working conditions become unsafe and there is no ability to have a business open;
  2. There is no way to access the workplace; or where
  3. The business has succumbed to the fires (or other natural disasters).

Q2. There is a lot of cleaning up to do at my business premises before we can return to normal work. Can I ask employees to help with that?

 

YES.However, before asking employees to participate in clean-up work, you must be satisfied that they are both competent to do so, and are physically capable of doing the work. If necessary, you should enquire about any physical limitations employees have before allocating work to them of a kind they would not usually perform. Some tasks might also involve specific safety requirements or specific training or safety induction – for example, in the safe use of equipment or cleaning substances, or preventing biological contamination from dirty water. Remember that your workplace health and safety obligations will continue to apply, and that significant criminal penalties can result from breaches of health and safety laws.

Q3. Because of the bush fires, I can’t provide an employee with their usual work, but I have other work they can do. Can I ask or direct them to do that work instead?

Generally yes,provided that the employee is capable (by experience, training or qualification) of doing the work and it presents no safety risks. See the notes to question 2.

Q4. Can I allow or require an employee to work from their home while my business premises are fire affected?

 

Generally yes,although depending on a range of variables, some safety issues might arise over which you have no control. Given the strict liabilities imposed by workplace health and safety laws, this could expose you to liabilities about which you know very little or nothing.

Q5. Can I force an employee to take paid annual or personal leave if I can’t usefully employ them for a period for reasons beyond my control?

 No. Directing an employee to take annual leave is usually only available where the employee has an excess amount of leave. Seek professional advice.

Q6. Do I have to make any adjustments to the leave entitlements of employees who were on paid leave of any kind during bush fire interruptions to my business?

With some exceptions, the answer is generally no. However, an employee cannot be on annual leave if they are on any other form of leave (except parental leave) at the same time. For example, an employee on annual leave who becomes, during or as a result of a bush fires, entitled to take paid sick or carer’s leave, may apply to take sick or carer’s leave for the relevant period and ask that you credit their annual leave entitlement accordingly.

Similarly, an employee on annual leave called up to Community Service or other “recognised emergency management body” to assist in the management of a natural disaster would be eligible to take community service leave. An employee in this position might request to have their annual leave balance adjusted for the period they were on community service leave, although community service leave is generally unpaid. Community service leave is discussed further in question 12 below.

Accessing leave entitlements

Where a natural disaster affects an employee’s household or immediate family member, they may be entitled to paid carer’s leave. This type of leave may include (but is not limited to) situations including:

  • Where a school is closed due to impending fire risk, or has been damaged and an employee needs to care for their child;
  • Where an immediate family member of an employee has lost their home and the employee needs leave to provide care or support to that family member; or
  • Where a member of the employee’s household is a volunteer firefighter and has suffered an injury or illness requiring care or support from the employee.

Q7. My business has been so badly affected that I will not be re-opening at all or won’t be able to operate for some time. Can I dismiss my employees on the grounds that their services are not going to be required for the foreseeable future? What are the implications of that?

 

Yes, subject to compliance with applicable industrial requirements relating to redundancy situations, of which this is an example. In many cases employers will have obligations to consult affected workers; to genuinely consider redeployment opportunities; and, upon termination, to give up to five weeks’ notice or pay in lieu, and, for employers with 15 employees or more, to pay up to 16 weeks severance or redundancy pay.

Q8. An employee’s home was badly affected by the fires. Are they entitled to paid or unpaid leave to sort out the personal problems that caused?

Generally speaking, yes.Paid carer’s leave is available where an employee is required to provide care or support for members of their immediate family or household because of an unexpected emergency. A significant bush fire event will qualify an employee to take carer’s leave to deal with the aftermath and to support their immediate family or household. Carer’s leave is limited, and comes out of the personal leave entitlement.

 

An employee who has accrued annual leave available may apply to take it in these circumstances (with your agreement). You can also agree to allow an employee to take annual leave in advance.

 

Long serving employees who are entitled to take paid long service leave may apply (with your agreement) to take such leave in these circumstances. State LSL legislation will apply. Seek professional advice.

 

If an employee was injured or falls ill during the fires or clean-up process, they may also be entitled to take paid sick leave (subject to their leave balance and the provision of any medical certificates that may be required by their employer). Sick leave, like carer’s leave, also comes out of the limited personal leave entitlement.

Where a member of an employee’s immediate family or household sustains a life threatening injury or illness or dies, the employee is entitled to two days’ paid compassionate leave (unless they are casual employees, in which case the leave is unpaid). Compassionate leave is separate from the personal leave entitlement, available to be taken as sick or carer’s leave.

Where an employee is not entitled to any of the above paid leave, you can nevertheless allow the employee to take paid or unpaid “special” leave in order to address their personal circumstances.

Q9. An employee can’t physically get to work because road closures or other restrictions preventing their access. Do I have to keep paying them while this continues?

Generally not,although you could allow them to access any accrued but untaken annual or long service leave entitlements, or to take paid annual leave in advance, provided you and they agree to that.

Q10. An employee is not directly affected by the fires, but has taken time off to assist family members who are directly affected. What is their entitlement to do that?

An employee may be entitled to take paid or unpaid carer’s leave in this circumstance. Carer’s leave is available where an employee is required to provide care or support for members of their immediate family or household because of an unexpected emergency. Natural disasters will qualify.

Where an employee exhausts their entitlement to paid carer’s leave, they may be entitled to take further periods of unpaid carer’s leave.

Q11. An employee was not directly affected by the fires but wants to take time off work to perform volunteer community work. Do I have to allow that?

Generally not,but you can allow it on a paid or unpaid basis if you wish to do so.

Q13. An employee is a member of the State Emergency Service/ Rural Fire Service etc. and was called to perform emergency service work. Are they entitled to time off for that and, if so, are they entitled to paid leave?

Employees who are members of any of the “recognised emergency management bodies” (as defined in the Fair Work Act) are entitled to take community service leave for the time they were engaged in the emergency work. This leave is generally unpaid, although some employers treat it (or part of it) as paid leave, either because they choose to do so or have agreed to do it.

Given the unprecedented nature of the bush fires some employers may choose to pay their employees’ wages for all or part of the time spent on community service leave.

 

The period for which an employee can be absent on community service leave is not specified in the Fair Work Act but must be reasonable considering:

  • the time the employee is engaged in the emergency work;
  • reasonable travelling time associated with the work; and
  • reasonable rest time after performing such work.

 

To be considered community service leave, the employee must, as soon as practicable, notify you of their absence and advise you of the expected period of their absence.

Government Response to entitlements for volunteers

As the nation responds to the bushfire crisis, the government are providing additional leave entitlements for employees who volunteer in emergency services. This includes:

NSW Rural Fire Service volunteers who are self-employed or work for small and medium businesses, will be able to apply for payments up to $300 per day and a total of $6000 per person to provide for lost income.

Please note that the information provided here is general information applicable to National System Employers to whom the Fair Work Act applies (and not, for example, public servants and local authorities in most States and Territories).

In some cases, the rights and obligations of the parties will vary according to the industrial arrangements applicable to them under an award, collective agreement, continuing statutory individual agreement, common law employment contract, workplace policy, or a combination of these. For advice specific to your situation, you should consult a professional workplace relations advisor.

Different considerations will also apply to contractors. Again, in situations involving contracting arrangements, we recommend that you seek specialist advice.

For more information about your rights and obligations when business is disrupted by a natural disaster, please contact the Workplace Relations Specialists or email: admin#@wrkplacerelationsspecialists.com.au

 

 

 

 

 

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