We have been getting quite a few questions about the rules around business shutdowns and employee absences associated with the terrible bushfires which have ravaged so much of the country.

These range from those who sadly have lost property and/or have had to evacuate so the business just stops to those in other areas who have downstream effects of toxic smoke in the air. There are also those brave people who have volunteered to fight the fires and perform other emergency duties at the personal expense of their paid jobs.

Voluntary Emergency Service Leave

Community service leave is one of the National Employment Standards that apply to most of us. That includes voluntary emergency service leave.

All employees including casual employees who are engaged in voluntary emergency activity with a recognised emergency management body like the SES, CFA or RSPCA are entitled to leave without pay. If you are able to pay your employee for that period, that is fantastic but we know that most small businesses would struggle with that. The period of leave is not limited other than that it should be no longer than the period that they are engaged in that emergency management activity with allowance for reasonable travel and rest. More information is available at https://www.fairwork.gov.au/leave/community-service-leave.

Business interruption and employee stand down

The Fair Work Act provides for certain situations where an employee may be stood down without pay due to circumstances beyond the employer’s control. These include severe and inclement weather or natural disasters (such as bushfires) which force a business interruption or closure.

That is fairly clearcut for those businesses in areas directly impacted by fires who have had to close at least temporarily. It is however important to check any employment contract or enterprise agreement or modern award to see if any alternative provisions apply. For example, the Building and Construction General On-site Award 2010 has an inclement weather clause that affords employees an entitlement to up to 32 hours pay in a period of 4 weeks where business operations are disrupted by inclement weather. See Clause 23 at https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/documents/modern_awards/award/ma000020/default.htm

It might also be that businesses which are not located in the areas directly impacted by fires are also affected either because they delivered products or services into or out of those directly impacted areas or because they are suffering other effects such as poor air quality from smoke in their areas of operation. The stand down provisions could also apply to them.

In any of these scenarios, if you are able to provide people with alternative work within their capabilities, that would be great. However, we know that for many that just isn’t possible.

Other leave entitlements

Employees might make requests to use annual leave or long service leave entitlements during the stand down period and, if that is something that you as an affected employer can accommodate, that is great.

Unfortunately, for many employers, the loss of cash-flow and the uncertainty about the business future will make that extremely difficult if not impossible. If that is your situation, ensure that you at least know what support is available for your employees and direct them to where they can access that support (and ensure that you access it too).

Personal/Carer’s Leave can apply in a few contexts:

  • An employee who suffers injury or illness as a result of the fires may be incapacitated for work eg an employee injured during a bushfire, or who is unwell and unable to work due to smoke inhalation, may be entitled to sick leave.
  • An employee can take paid carer’s leave to care for or support a member of their immediate family or household who is sick, injured or has an unexpected emergency. For example, an employee may be able to take carer’s leave to care for their child if their child’s school closes unexpectedly due to a bushfire emergency.

Sadly, there are also situations where Compassionate Leave comes into play – when a member of an employee’s immediate family or household dies or has a life threatening illness or injury. That entitlement is to two days of paid leave for full-time or part-time employees (unpaid for casuals).

What else can you do?

We know that people go through enormous trauma and stress in these disaster situations which gives rise to anxiety and depression and a host of other mental health issues.

We also know that disasters like these lead to heightened levels of suicide and domestic violence.

As much as you can, try to keep in touch with your people and support them emotionally – just having a boss who cares can make a world of difference to their wellbeing and resilience in tough times….and make sure that you and your family have the supports that you need to.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has a “Bushfires across Australia” webpage which has a lot of useful stuff on it (and some content has been drawn from there) – see

https://www.fairwork.gov.au/about-us/news-and-media-releases/website-news/bushfires-across-australia#pay-during-stand-down

PS Thank you to all of the civil contractors for your outstanding support for the fire fighting effort. We have been servicing the HR needs of civil contractors through our partnership with the the Civil Contractors Federation in Victoria for the past 14 years. Each time that there is a major fire emergency, CCF members are there to help protect Victorians. You are awesome! If you need some help with people issues associated with the fires (whether your business is affected or you are fighting them), give us a call for free – use your membership and call Peter Maguire on 0438 533 311.