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What workplace laws say when disaster strikes

Adam Zuchetti
Adam Zuchetti
07 February 2019 2 minute readShare

With severe floods impacting north Queensland, bushfires in Tasmania and severe storms lashing many areas in recent months, employers are being reassured that there are options for dealing with employee entitlements during forced downtime.

Sadly, natural disasters, power outages and other business interruptions can and do happen all too frequently.

Several business owners recently spoke with My Business about how the historic flood situation facing Townsville (pictured) has impacted themselves, their businesses and their local communities.

While such situations can affect people indiscriminately, business owners shoulder the added burden of determining how to manage their workforce when operations are made impossible.

Workplace advisory Employsure told My Business that it has been averaging around a dozen calls a day from employers in and around Townsville impacted by the flood crisis.

According to senior workplace adviser Julian Hackenberg, “there are a range of options available to employers and employees depending on the circumstances”.

He said that some employment agreements and awards will contain specific provisions dictating how such situations are handled, but without these, the employer can have much more discretion to act as they feel is appropriate for the business under the given situation.

“This may include offering employees with a choice of taking their paid leave, or in some cases, standing down employees,” Mr Hackenberg said.

“It is not mandatory for stand-downs to be unpaid. Your employer may choose to continue to pay staff, but this is at their discretion.”

Aside from standing down workers, Mr Hackenberg said that other options include requesting staff take paid annual leave, offering flexible work arrangements such as working from home if that is appropriate, or temporarily relocating employees to another unaffected site.

What does the Fair Work Act say?

As the Fair Work Ombudsman website states, employers are afforded scope to force staff onto unpaid leave, or request they use paid annual leave, to cover any downtime caused by the effects of a natural disaster or some other mitigating circumstance.

“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,” it states.

“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.”

However, employers should first determine whether there are specific provisions outlined in the relevant award or workplace agreement under which the employees were hired.

“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,” it states.

“Employees who are award or agreement free can be required to take paid annual leave if the requirement is reasonable.”

More information on natural disaster provisions in workplace laws can be found on the Fair Work Ombudsman’s website.

Assistance for flood victims

The federal government has released financial support for people who lost earnings as a direct result of the Townsville floods, in the form of a Disaster Recovery Allowance.

Full details on the payment, including amounts and eligibility, can be found on the Department of Human Services website.

What workplace laws say when disaster strikes
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Adam Zuchetti
Adam Zuchetti

Adam Zuchetti is the former editor of MyBusiness and a senior freelance media professional, specialising in the fields of business, personal finance and property. In 2020, he also embarked on his own business journey – inspired in part by the entrepreneurs and founders he had met through his journalistic work – with the launch of customised pet gifting and subscription service Paws N’ All.

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