If natural disaster strikes, what are your obligations as an employer?

We live in a country that unfortunately experiences catastrophic bushfires, flooding, cyclones and other similarly damaging natural events. If your business  is negatively impacted by a natural disaster, what are your obligations towards your employees during this difficult time? We briefly consider three scenarios affecting the employment relationship in the event of such a disaster.

1 – A business has to temporarily close because of a natural disaster

Where a business can no longer operate as a result of a natural disaster an employer will have to consider their obligations to their employees during this period of closure. Options include offering employees access to any paid leave entitlements that may be owing, flexible work arrangements and possibly even standing down employees without pay. The available options will depend on applicable awards and agreements but legislation does make provision for employees to be stood down without pay where the employer cannot reasonably be held responsible for the cause of the stoppage.

2 – Employees are unable to attend work because of a natural disaster

Employees may have a number of paid and unpaid leave options available if they cannot attend work because of a natural disaster or associated events. For example personal leave would cover situations where the employee or a family member was injured in the disaster or where a school cannot re-open and an employee must stay home to care for young children. Other relevant types of leave include unpaid carers leave and compassionate leave.

3 – Employees volunteering to assist in an emergency

Employees who are involved in emergency assistance work may be entitled to community service leave. This may be paid or unpaid depending on the applicable awards or agreements.

A different consideration that may be relevant to larger employers is whether they should ‘sponsor’ or organise employees to engage in volunteer work. Before doing so,an employer should consider potential insurance and OH&S risks if this work is essentially done within the employment relationship. This could be contrasted with the situation where employees are individually or personally organising their own volunteer work. In the latter situations, the liability and risk is not likely to rest with the employer.

Sarah Waterhouse, Paralegal, BlandsLaw


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