Author: Lehanne Bleumink, Gold Seal HR Services Manager.

A range of natural disasters, such as bushfires, floods, cyclones and severe storms can cause devastation to communities and financial hardship for individuals and businesses. Currently bushfires across Australia are affecting many parts of the country, with many workplaces and individuals affected. There are a number of workplace rights and entitlements for employers and employees affected by natural disasters.

The Fair Work Act 2009 provides that an employer can stand down an employee without pay if there’s no useful work for them to do because of:

  • Equipment break down
  • Natural disaster (including bushfires, floods, cyclones, severe storms)
  • Industrial action

The description of a stand down is when a certain circumstance beyond the employers control, allows an employer to ask employees to go home, or not attend work for a period of time when they cannot be utilised in the workplace. This is not to be confused with a shutdown, which is the decision to close the business temporarily over slow periods such as Christmas and New Year. These stand down provisions only apply when an employee’s award or employment agreement don’t contain stand down provisions (the Banking Finance & Insurance Award does not contain provisions).

Pay during stand down
If an employee is stood down, employers are not required to pay the employee for the period of stand down, however the continuity of service is not broken so they will still continue to accrue leave entitlements, such as annual and personal/carer’s leave. Employers can consider other options instead of standing down employees. Considering these can help reduce the potential effects on an employee and include:

  • The option to take a portion of paid leave
  • Potential to share hours and workload
  • Reduced working hours each day
  • Flexible arrangements, such as working from home

Natural disasters often result in employees requiring time off to care for themselves or their family. Employers should keep in mind the health and wellbeing of their employees when granting leave. State workplace health and safety laws provide for a general duty of care towards employees that should be considered. The heat or smoke from bushfires may be a risk to health or safety at work in some areas.

Community service leave
The National Employment Standards (NES) entitle employees who are members of a recognised emergency management body to take unpaid community service leave during a natural disaster, this includes volunteer fire fighters. Under the NES, the amount of time that can be taken is not specified, however they should be allowed reasonable travel time and rest time immediately following the activity. It is important to follow state and federal direction regarding the rights of those involved in the current bushfire disaster.

Defence Reservists may be called to assist with the bushfires. There are a number of rights and protections that apply under the Defence Reserve Service (Protection) Act 2001 if Reservists are absent on defence service. They have the right to be released from work while undertaking defence service and to continue to be employed on their return.

For more information on employment entitlements during natural disasters and emergencies read the Fair Work fact sheet.

Our thoughts are with all members of our community during these traumatic times.

For assistance on any of your HR/IR requirements – call Gold Seal on 03 9510 5100 or email hrservices@goldseal.com.au