Employment entitlements during natural disasters and emergencies
Read our fact sheet on employment conditions during natural disasters and emergencies.
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Australians can experience a range of natural disasters, such as floods, bushfires, tropical cyclones, severe storms and even earthquakes. These events can cause devastation to communities and financial hardship for individuals and businesses.
An employee may have entitlements under their award or agreement that are relevant when they’re unable to attend work due to an emergency or natural disaster. Where no such entitlement exist, this fact sheet outlines the options available to employers and employees, depending on their circumstances.
There may also be state or territory-based advice and assistance available to affected employers and employees. State or territory workplace health and safety laws also provide for a general duty of care towards employees that should be considered.
Employers will have to consider available options for employees if they have to temporarily close as a result of a natural disaster or emergency. This may include offering for employees to take accrued paid leave. Employers may also be able to stand down employees.
The Fair Work Act 2009 (FW Act) allows employers to stand down employees in certain circumstances when the employee cannot be usefully employed. This includes where they can’t be usefully employed because of a stoppage of work for which the employer cannot be reasonably held responsible. This may include work stoppages caused by natural disasters, such as bushfires or floods. An employer is not required to make payments to an employee for the period of a stand down, but may choose to pay their employees if they wish.
Under the FW Act employee stand down provisions do not apply during a period when an employee is taking authorised paid or unpaid leave (such as annual leave) or is otherwise entitled to be absent from work (such as on a public holiday). It may be appropriate to seek guidance on these matters if you are unsure.
The FW Act stand down provisions only apply when an employee’s enterprise agreement or employment contract doesn’t contain stand down provisions that deal with the same circumstances. You should check your enterprise agreement or employment contract to see if it contains any stand down provisions. If an employer stands down an employee under an applicable enterprise agreement or employment contract, the employer is required to comply with the terms of the enterprise agreement or employment contract in relation to stand down.
Employers also need to consider any additional requirements under any applicable award. An award can have different or additional rules about when an employer can stand down an employee. For example, some awards include a requirement to notify or consult with an employee before they can be stood down.
If an employer does stand down employees under the FW Act provisions, it’s best practice to tell those employees in writing (where possible), including:
- the start date of the stand down
- whether the employees will or will not be paid
- the effect on other employment entitlements.
An employer should also try to update employees about when they believe the stand down will end.
Employees who have been stood down without pay can contact Centrelink to discuss other available options for assistance. Visit www.servicesaustralia.gov.au/individuals or call 13 28 50.
Before standing down an employee, employers should consider all other options available. These may include:
- inviting employees to take a period of accrued paid leave (for example, annual leave)
- requiring employees to take annual leave if their award or agreement allows it, or if the employee is award or agreement free (and the requirement is reasonable)
- if there are multiple worksites and not all sites are affected, consider voluntary work sharing arrangements (for example, employees at non-affected sites may offer to take paid leave while their position is temporarily filled by someone from an affected site)
- where appropriate, consider flexible arrangements, like working from home.
Any arrangements to alter an employee’s working patterns would need to be made in accordance with the FW Act and any relevant award or agreement.
Anthony runs a café in the Hunter Valley which has been affected by a flood in the region, leaving his business unable to operate.
Anthony is unsure what to do about paying his employees. He contacts the Fair Work Infoline and is advised that the relevant enterprise agreement does not have any provisions that deal with business closures due to natural disasters.
Anthony is able to stand down his employees during the period in which the employees cannot be usefully employed because of a stoppage of work caused by the flood.
If possible, Anthony would prefer his employees be paid during the stand down. He checks their current leave entitlements as an alternative to an unpaid stand down. He finds that of his 3 employees:
- 2 have accrued annual leave
- 1 has accrued annual leave and long service leave.
On this basis, Anthony contacts each employee to advise them that the business is unable to remain open because of the flooding and he cannot provide them with useful employment at this stage. He also tells them that in accordance with the FW Act, he will be standing them down without pay until the business is able to reopen.
He offers his employees the option of using their leave entitlements during the period as an alternative to being stood down without pay.
Anthony makes it clear that it is entirely optional and there is no obligation to take this leave. 2 employees choose to take paid leave, while one decides to hold on to their leave for a holiday they have planned.
He then writes to each of his employees by email to confirm the arrangements discussed and provides them with his contact details during the stand down period.
He advises the employees that he will remain in regular contact with them throughout the period of the closure and notify them when the business is up and running again.
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 staff when granting access to leave entitlements.
Under the FW Act, employees (other than casual employees) affected by a natural disaster or emergency may have an entitlement to take paid sick/carer’s leave. An employee can take accrued paid sick/carer’s leave if they are unfit for work due to an illness or injury or if they need to provide care or support to an immediate family or household member due to illness, injury or in the event of an unexpected emergency.
Employers should also consider their obligations under any award, enterprise agreement, employment contract or workplace policy, which could include extra rules about sick and carer’s leave.
Whether an employee can take sick or carer’s leave when affected by natural disasters or emergencies depends on the circumstances. For example, if an employee is injured during a flood or bushfire they may be entitled to paid sick leave. An employee may also be entitled to take sick/carer’s leave to care for their child if for example their child’s childcare closed temporarily due to a natural disaster or another unexpected emergency.
Employees who have used all of their paid sick/carer’s leave entitlement, and casual employees, are entitled to 2 days unpaid carer’s leave per occasion to provide care or support to an immediate family or household member due to illness, injury or in the event of an unexpected emergency.
All employees are entitled to 2 days of compassionate leave per occasion to spend time with a member of their immediate family or household who has sustained a life-threatening illness or injury.
2 days of compassionate leave can also be taken in other circumstances, including after the death of a member of the employee’s immediate family or household. For more information on when compassionate leave or other leave can be taken, visit www.fairwork.gov.au/leave
Employees (other than casual employees) are entitled to be paid their base rate of pay for periods of compassionate leave.
Notice and evidence requirements
The National Employment Standards (NES) in the FW Act require an employee to notify their employer when they take sick/carer’s leave or compassionate leave as soon as practicable and the period or expected period of leave. The employer, after being notified, may require the employee to provide evidence to support the reason for taking the leave.
For example, an employer may ask the employee to provide a medical certificate.
An employee may not be entitled to the leave if they don’t give notice and provide any requested evidence of the leave.
For more information about sick and carer’s leave visit www.fairwork.gov.au/leave.
For the last 3 years, Murray has worked as a cleaner on a full-time basis for a cleaning company that operates in the Torquay region. Despite heavy flooding in the area, the company has been able to continue operating and all staff are able to maintain their employment.
Murray’s son, Greg, attends primary school in Torquay. The school was damaged by the floods and was forced to close down immediately for a few days for urgent repairs. Since the school has closed down on short notice, Murray has had difficulties with arranging alternative care for Greg.
Murray contacts his manager, Michael, to tell him about his situation and to tell him he needs to take leave to care for Greg while the school is shut. He forwards Michael a copy of an email from the school’s principal about the school’s immediate closure to support the reason for the leave. Michael accepts this and also offers Murray the option of accessing his accrued annual leave if he requires any more time off.
Employees may be requested to volunteer to assist the community with disaster relief activities through recognised emergency management bodies like the State Emergency Service. Employers and employees should be aware of what entitlements apply to those employees who wish to volunteer in these activities.
Community service leave
Under the NES, employees who are members of a recognised emergency management body are entitled to take unpaid community service leave for certain emergency management activities such as dealing with a natural disaster.
An employee must also be:
- engaging in an activity that involves dealing with an emergency or natural disaster
- engaging in the activity on a voluntary basis (whether or not the employee directly or indirectly takes or agrees to take an honorarium, gratuity or similar payment wholly or partly for engaging in the activity)
- a member of, or have a member-like association with, a recognised emergency management body
- requested to engage in an activity by or on behalf of the body, or it would be reasonable to expect that such a request would have been made if circumstances had permitted.
A recognised emergency management body is:
- a body that has a role or function under a plan that is for coping with emergencies / natural disasters (prepared by the Commonwealth or a state or territory)
- a fire-fighting, civil defence or rescue body
- any other body which is mainly involved in responding to an emergency or natural disaster.
This includes bodies such as:
- the State Emergency Service (SES)
- Country Fire Authority (CFA)
- the RSPCA (in respect of animal rescue during emergencies or natural disasters).
Awards and agreements may also contain specific provisions in relation to community service leave in addition to the NES.
Under the NES, the amount of time that can be taken is not specified, however the employee is entitled to the following time off work as long as the absence is reasonable in all the circumstances:
- the time that the employee is engaged in the activity,
- reasonable travel time associated with the activity
- reasonable rest time immediately following the activity.
An employee who wants to take a period of community service leave must tell their employer as soon as practicable, including the period or expected period of the leave and, if required by their employer, provide reasonable evidence of the reason for the leave.
Shona is a registered volunteer for Victoria’s State Emergency Service and has been asked to volunteer for one week in response to a bushfire. Shona would really like to help, but wants to know whether she can take time off work and whether she is entitled to any income.
Shona looks on the FWO’s website to check her entitlements. Shona finds that her award does not provide for any payment in this circumstance. However, because the Victorian State Emergency Service is a “recognised emergency management body”, she is entitled to unpaid community service leave for volunteering in an emergency and/or natural disaster.
Shona decides that she would still like to volunteer, so she emails her employer, Eva, telling her that she will be taking community service leave and that she expects to be back in 7 days. After further discussion, Eva asks Shona to provide her with a formal letter from the Victorian State Emergency Service for evidence of the reason for her leave.
After a week’s service, Shona completes her final night shift assisting the Victorian State Emergency Service. However, Shona was scheduled to begin work at 5am the next day. Shona requests, and is granted, the day off to provide for adequate rest time as part of the community service leave.
If you have been affected by a natural disaster please visit:
- National: Visit Australian Government Disaster Assist at www.disasterassist.gov.au or call 180 22 66
- ACT: Visit the ACT Emergency Services Agency at www.esa.act.gov.au or call 13 22 81
- NSW: Visit Emergency Management NSW at www.emergency.nsw.gov.au or call (02) 9212 9200
- NT: Visit SecureNT at secure.nt.gov.au or call 131 444
- QLD: Visit Recovery after a disaster at www.qld.gov.au/community or call 1800 173 349
- SA: Visit the Department for Communities and Social Inclusion at www.recovery.sa.gov.au or call 1800 302 787
- VIC: Visit the Department of Human Services Emergency Management at services.dhhs.vic.gov.au/emergencies or call 1300 650 172
- WA: Visit Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements at dfes.wa.gov.au/recovery or call (08) 9323 9552
- Lifeline: Visit Lifeline at www.lifeline.org.au or call 13 11 14
For further information about your workplace rights and obligations visit www.fairwork.gov.au or contact the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94.
Fair Work Online: www.fairwork.gov.au
Fair Work Infoline: 13 13 94
Need language help?
Contact the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS) on 13 14 50
Hearing and speech assistance
Call through the National Relay Service (NRS):
- For TTY: 13 36 77. Ask for the Fair Work Infoline 13 13 94
- Speak and Listen: 1300 555 727. Ask for the Fair Work Infoline 13 13 94