Australia Natural Disaster Relief – What are the rights and entitlements of volunteers?

by | Jan 29, 2020 | Employment Law

Andrew Knox is a volunteer fire fighter, who according to BBC News, dropped his ordinary life to fight the fires which have ravaged New South Wales recently. The New South Wales Rural Fires Services claims to be “the world’s largest volunteer firefighting organisation”.  It is unlikely that Mr Knox, as a landscaper would have been able to work during his time fighting the fires.

The extreme weather events experienced across Australia heighten the importance for employers and employees to be aware of the rights and entitlements offered to those volunteering in the relief effort, and to ensure that their workplace practices and policies reflect these statutory rights.

What you need to know:

There are various laws and instruments governing the rights of volunteers, such as

  • Statutory Community Service Leave under the National Employment Standards (NES)
  • Specific Community Service Leave covered under enterprise agreements (EAs)
  • Additional Government Leave entitlements [for public sector employees]
  • Employer policies
  • Your employment contract

Statutory Community Service Leave

Covered under the NES, employees assisting in the national relief response providing voluntary emergency management (including firefighting and rescue response such as the SES) are entitled to take unpaid Community Service Leave. Regardless of their agreement, contract or award, all employees who are covered under the NES have the right to access this leave.

Importantly for both employers and employees, the amount of community service leave is not limited. Further, there are no prohibitions on taking this leave entitlement and there are protections against termination or adverse action by an employer for employees volunteering on this basis under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

Specific Community Service Leave covered under enterprise agreements (EA)

Under applicable EAs paid Volunteer and Community Service Leave may also be accessible to employees. It should be noted that the existence of this as an entitlement is dependent on the terms of the relevant EA.

Government

Government employees, State and Federal have additional “entitlements”.

Policies of employers

Many National Employers have specific Community Service policies that guide what can be done and how in published HR hand books and intranet.  Those, if published, are not contradictory to NES or EA, will be binding.

Employment Contract

Increasingly, specific provisions for staff in bushfire prone areas are added to contracts on Employment, permitting different/additional “entitlements” and dispensations.

A personal response to giving relief

In addition to Community Service Leave, permanent employees are within their rights to also take any accrued paid annual leave and/or negotiate their leave entitlements with their employers.

The giving of notice here is often the biggest issue.

Given the exceptional circumstances which Australia is currently experiencing employers and employees are required to accommodate volunteers and protect their job whilst the employee is volunteering.

Clinch Long Woodbridge’s expert employment team provide succinct practical advice to employers and employees in ensuring leave entitlements meet the statutory requirements and any associated policies correspond with these entitlements.

This article was written by Clayton Long – Executive Lawyer, John Simpson – Executive Lawyer and Genevieve Hehir – Solicitor.

Important Disclaimer: The content of this publication is general in nature and for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication.