Natural disaster and Community Service Leave Entitlements

While the nation was brought to a standstill this time last year watching the devastation that the bushfires caused, it brings to mind the sheer uncertainty of the impact a natural disaster has on families left stranded, businesses left closed and small towns cut off.

As the fires go through towns in a matter of hours, the repairs to the destruction can take much longer to enact. With the impact from the fires, some are left wondering what happens to their income if they cannot return to their homes and jobs.

When an employer is impacted by a natural disaster or something that is outside of their control (fire, flood, power blackout), under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) an employer can stand down employees without pay until the business is able to operate again. In some cases, an employer may choose to pay their employees during these periods or allow the employee to access accrued leave entitlements such as annual leave, long service leave and potentially personal or carer’s leave.

What happens if my place of employment was not affected but my children cannot return to school or day care?

If a family has been impacted by the fires or a natural disaster and are left without care or supervision for their children, they are able to access paid carer’s leave. Carer’s Leave forms part of a permanent employee’s Personal Leave entitlement which, for a full-time employee, they are able to accrue 10 days of personal/carer’s leave a year. The balance of this type of leave ‘rolls over’ year to year. So for families’ workplaces that have been unaffected but their children’s day care facility has, then they are able to access carer’s leave to take care of their children when in normal circumstances the children would be in day care or in school (for non-school holiday periods).

What about our volunteer firefighters that may have left jobs to fight the bushfires?

Our volunteer firefighters that are normally sitting behind a desk, on a work site or even in a class room can access a type of leave that allows them to honour their employment commitments but also be absent from their jobs for as long as they are engaged in the emergency. This is called Community Service Leave.

To be eligible to take Community Service Leave the employee must be engaged in an activity that is an ‘eligible community service activity’ such as being a voluntary emergency management activity (natural disaster such as firefighting). The employee must be a volunteer, a member of or has a member-like association with a recognised emergency management body (NSW Rural Fire Service) and that they were requested, or it was reasonably expected of the individual to engage in the activity.

Our volunteer firefighters certainly fit the criteria to access Community Service Leave for as long as they are engaging in firefighting activity. This leave also extends to the time it takes the volunteer firefighter to travel to and from the disaster site and the time to rest immediately after the event. This leave is unpaid by the employer but fortunately, the Fair Work Act stipulates that the volunteer can accept an honorarium, gratuity or similar payment for engaging in the activity. This covers the compensation the Government announced recently for volunteer firefighter to access up to $6,000.00 for their time.