Natural disasters and employee entitlements

Natural disasters and employee entitlements

With parts of North Queensland being declared a disaster zone, CCIQ members are encouraged to take heed to ensure not only their own safety but the safety of their staff. 

During this time, many employers will face the difficulties of managing the continued operation of business under strained circumstances. It is important for employers to remember that employees may have entitlements under their award or agreements that are relevant when an they’re unable to attend work due to an emergency or natural disaster.

What if an employer has to temporarily close its business? 
Employers will have to determine employee entitlements if they have to temporarily close as a result of a natural disaster or emergency. This may include offering the choice of taking accrued paid leave or, in some cases, standing down employees. 

The Fair Work Act 2009 (FW Act) allows employers to stand down employees when there is no useful work for them do. This can only happen if the reason for the stand down is outside the employer’s control, such as a natural disaster. A stand down can be unpaid, but an employer may choose to pay their employees instead. Employees may be entitled to access other types of paid leave under certain circumstances (see “alternatives to standing down employees” below). 

Stand down provisions only apply when an employee’s award, agreement or employment contract don’t contain stand down provisions that deal with the same circumstances. You should check your award, agreement or employment contract to see if it contains any stand down provisions. 

If an employer does stand down employees, 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. 

What are the alternatives to standing down employees?

Before an employer stands down employees without pay there are other options that they may wish to consider. 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-free.

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 such as 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.

Are employees able to take leave to take care of themselves or their family?

Natural disasters often result in employees requiring time off to care for themselves or their family, or due to an emergency affecting their family members. Employers should keep in mind the health and wellbeing of their staff when granting access to leave entitlements.

Personal/carer’s leave

Employees (other than casual employees) affected by a natural disaster or emergency may have an entitlement to take paid personal/carer’s leave or compassionate leave.

For example, if an employee is injured during a flood or bushfire they may be entitled to personal leave. An employee would also be eligible for carer’s leave if their child’s school closed due to a natural disaster or emergency.

Employees who have used all of their paid personal/carer’s leave entitlement, and casual employees, are entitled to two days unpaid carer’s leave per occasion to provide care and support to a family or household member due to illness, injury or in the event of an unexpected emergency.

Information for those who want to assist with disaster-relief activities

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

The NES entitles employees who are members of a recognised emergency management body to take unpaid community service leave for certain emergency management activities such as dealing with a natural disaster.

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 it must be reasonable taking into account:

·        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 possible, including the expected period of the absence and provide any required evidence of the reason for the leave. In addition, an employee must also be:

  1. engaging in an activity that involves dealing with an emergency or natural disaster
  2. 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)
  3. a member of, or has a member-like association with, a recognised emergency management body
  4. requested to engage in an activity, or it would be reasonable to expect that such a request would have been made if circumstances had permitted.

Advice to members:

If you have any questions regarding employment conditions during natural disasters and emergencies please contact CCIQ employer assistance team on 1300 135 822. 

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