The devastating scale of bushfires in Australia this summer would have been even more devastating if not for the country’s tens of thousands of heroic volunteer firefighters.
So overwhelmed have the volunteer fire brigades been throughout this bushfire season, that the Federal Government earlier this month announced the mobilisation of up to 3,000 army reservists to assist with the disaster response.
The bushfire season has had a massive impact on business, and with season’s end nowhere in sight, it’s hard to say when things may return to normal. To help ease the impact, this article will hope to answer some general queries regarding the rights and entitlements of employees who are volunteer firefighters, or army reservists and the obligations of employers.
Do I Have to Release Employees Who Are Volunteer Firefighters?
You are not obligated to provide paid leave to employees who may be enrolled as volunteer firefighters – unless it has been provided for by the relevant Modern Award or enterprise bargaining agreement.
Some businesses offer paid leave to their employees. Servants of the Federal Government may also access paid leave if they volunteer with volunteer fire brigades.1
However, all employees (including casuals), are entitled to unpaid community service leave under the National Employment Standards, for these types of emergency events.
What is Community Service Leave?
If one of your employees needs time off for firefighting, or helping with some other emergency or natural disaster, you may give them unpaid community service leave. There is no limit on how much community service leave someone takes, as long as it is eligible and reasonable.
The period of community service leave includes travel to the activity, time spent doing it, and time for reasonable rest and recovery afterwards. Community service leave does not accrue because it only occurs in specific and eligible situations.
There is no limit on how much community service leave someone takes, as long as it is eligible and reasonable.
Employees must give their employer reasonable notice, and an expected period of absence if they request community service leave. Employers may also request evidence that they are entitled to community service leave.
Can I Give Any Employee Volunteer Firefighters Annual Leave or Pay Them in Part or Full While They Are Away Firefighting?
Yes you may grant annual leave if you and your employee agree. You may also choose to pay your employee in part or in full during a period of unpaid community service leave.
As above, employees are entitled to unpaid community service leave. Unless your modern award or enterprise bargaining agreement (if applicable) says otherwise, you are not obliged to pay your employees while they are away.
What Constitutes a Valid Reason for Not Releasing My Employee to the ARMY Reserve?
If the absence is going to cause a significant impact on your business, you can speak to the unit point of contact to discuss your concerns. In exceptional circumstances, you may be able to seek exemption for your employee through their unit. A reservist must provide their employer with a form (supplied by the Army Reserve) when called out for service.
Am I Obliged to Pay My Employee Who Has Been Called out by the ARMY Reserve?
No you are not, unless otherwise specified in the relevant Modern Award or enterprise bargaining agreement.
Will I Be Compensated for Releasing My Employee?
The Army Reserve operates a scheme called the Employer Support Payment Scheme. The Scheme provides financial assistance to eligible employers of army reservists at a minimum rate based on the Full-Time Adult Average Weekly Ordinary Time Earnings.
The Scheme also covers for self-employed army reservists.
Volunteer firefighters who take community service leave, and army reservists who are called out, are both protected from adverse action under the Fair Work Act 2009.
That is, employees who are members of a volunteer firefighting unit or the Army Reserve may not be discriminated against for their absence or association with such organisations.
Army reservists have further protections under the Defence Reserve Service (Protection) Act 2001. For example, an employer may not compel an employee to take any type of paid or unpaid leave during their period of service.
How Can I Help With Bushfires?
To assist volunteer firefighters in NSW and Victoria, the hardest hit states, you can donate to their respective rural fire services. The NSW RFS also has set up a donations page to support the families of firefighters killed during the bushfire season.
How Can I Find More Information About Employee Entitlements, for an Employer?
Employsure is one of Australia’s leading workplace relations specialists, and we can assist in understanding your employee’s rights and entitlements. Call us today on 1300 651 415.
If you are a business in an area affected by bushfires, we encourage you to get in touch – we’d love to help.
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