Fire danger season - How does it impact employers?

Public news

It is hard to escape the devastating impact of the current fire danger season and the effect that it is having on families, wildlife, property and business.

As an employer, it is important to know that employees who are volunteer firefighters or those who are part of the Defence Reservists may be called for service for days or weeks at a time to help their community. As they provide a crucial service to our country, it is particularly important to support their efforts and we encourage you to make accommodations for their fire-fighting efforts. As they provide a crucial service to our country, it is particularly important to support their efforts and we encourage you to make accommodations for their fire-fighting efforts.

Community Service Leave

Any employee who engages in an eligible community service activity is entitled to be absent from their employment for the time engaged in such activity, together with reasonable travel and rest time, provided the absence is reasonable in all the circumstances. Except for jury service (which is dealt with separately), such leave is unpaid.

An eligible community service activity is jury service or a voluntary emergency management activity.

An eligible emergency management activity is if the employee is engaged in an activity involved in dealing with an emergency or natural disaster, on a voluntary basis, as a member of a recognised emergency management body, at the request of the body (or if circumstances had permitted, a request would have been made).

A recognised emergency management body includes one that has a role or function under a government plan for coping with emergencies and/or disasters, is a fire-fighting, civil defence or rescue body, or a body whose substantial purpose involves securing the safety of persons, animals or property in an emergency or natural disaster, or responding to an emergency or natural disaster.

What this means for employers is that provided the circumstances are reasonable, an employer must allow an employee to take community service leave to volunteer as a member of a fire-fighting body or other body responding to or assisting with fires.

Defence Reservists

The Prime Minister recently announced a compulsory call-up of up to 3,000 Defence Reservists to assist with the fires currently burning across the country.

As well as rights to community service leave and other workplace rights and entitlements under the Fair Work Act 2009, Defence Reservists have additional workplace protections under the Defence Reserve Service (Protection) Act 2001.

Reservists are protected in their workplace from discrimination, disadvantage or dismissal for reasons associated with their Defence service. Employers must also not prevent or hinder Reservists from undertaking a defence service, which means that employers are required by law to release employee Reservists to undertake all types of Defence service, and to continue to employ them on their return. There is no legal obligation for employers to pay employees while they are absent on Defence service, and employees cannot be required to take their annual leave or long service leave for absences on Defence service, but may voluntarily elect to do so by mutual agreement with their employer.

Employers may also be eligible for financial assistance to offset the costs of releasing employees for Defence service, through the Employer Support Payment Scheme. Again, this can have a significant impact on employers, although some financial support is available to offset some of the impact.

If you have any questions about the rights and responsibilities of both employers and employees relating to unpaid leave entitlements or about the impact of the fires, please contact the Workplace Relations team on (08) 8291 2000 or by clicking here.