With fire season in full swing, volunteer firefighters may be called in to assist with emergency management and bushfire activities. The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) works with over 26,000 volunteers in Western Australia fighting over 9,000 total fires in the state in the last financial year, with 5014 of those being bush fires. Many employers may unknowingly employ volunteer firefighters who help combat the fires, and those employees will be able to access community service leave entitlements.
What entitlements do employees who are volunteer firefighters have?
Section 109 of the Fair Work Act 209 (Cth) (FW Act) stipulates that employees who engage in a voluntary emergency management activity are entitled to unpaid time off to deal with the emergency or natural disaster. The employee must be participating as a volunteer, and be a member of, or have member-like association with a recognised emergency management body, such as DFES. Further, the employee must have also been requested by, or on behalf of, the body to engage in the activity. In some circumstances where such a request has not been made, but it would be reasonable to expect that it would have had the circumstances so permitted, leave must also be granted.
There is no time limit for the emergency management activity. The employee may be required to be away from the workplace for several days or weeks. However, it is important to note that emergency management leave does not include engaging in activities such as preparation, prevention or recovery from an emergency. Generally, employees who want to engage in such activities would need to request annual leave.
In addition to the FW Act, employers and employees in Western Australia are covered by the Emergency Management Act 2005 (WA). Section 92 stipulates that employees who engage in an emergency management response are entitled to be paid their ordinary rate of pay for the time the employee would have ordinarily worked, had he/she not been engaged in the response. Similarly, other entitlements such as long service leave, personal/carer’s leave and annual leave continue to accrue for the duration of the absence.
For the purposes of the Emergency Management Act, response has the same meaning as the word activity in the FW Act.
Notice and evidence
An employee who has been requested to participate in an emergency management activity must provide notice to his/her employer as soon as practicable and advise of the expected period of absence. An employer has the right to request evidence that would satisfy a reasonable person that the absence is because the employee has been or will be engaging in an emergency management activity. It may not be reasonable to provide the evidence until after the emergency has been dealt with, depending on the circumstances.
Can I decline the leave?
Where the employee meets the eligibility criteria for community service leave and complies with the notice and evidence requirements, they are entitled to be absent to deal with the emergency. Employers are not able to refuse an employee wanting to access community service leave.
Want to know more? Contact CCIWA’s Employee Relations Advice Centre team on 9365 7660 or email firstname.lastname@example.org