Employment conditions during natural disasters and emergencies
25th November 2019
by Fairwork Ombudsman
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. If no such entitlement exsists, this fact sheet will outline the options available to employers and employees depending on their circumstances.
There may also be a stat-based advice and assistance available to affected employers and employees. Furthermore, state workplace health and safety laws provide for a general duty of care toward employees that should be considered.
What if an employer has to temporarily close?
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 to 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.
These 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.
Employees who are award or agreement free can be required to take paid annual leave if the requirement is reasonable.
If an employer does stand down employees, it’s best practise to tell those employees in writing (where possible), including:
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 should contact Centrelink on 13 28 50 to discuss other available options for assistance.
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:
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 of themselves or their family?
Natural disasters often result in employees requiring time off to care for themselves or their family. Employers should keep in mind the health and well being of their staff when granting access to leave entitlements.
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 two days unpaid carer’s leave per occasion to provide care support to a family or household member due to illness, injury or in the event of an unexpected emergency.
All employees are entitled to two days of compassionate leave to spend time with a member of their immediate family or household who has sustained a life-threatening illness or injury. Compassionate leave may also be taken after the death of a member of the employee’s immediate family or household. Employees (other than casual employees) are entitled to be paid for periods of compassionate leave.
Notice and evidence requirements
The National Employment Standards (NES) require an employee to notify their employer when they take personal/carers leave or compassionate leave. The employer, after being notified, may require the employee to provide evidence to support the leave period.
For example, a employer may request that the employee provide a medical certificate.
For more information click here.