Volunteers with the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) who are self-employed or work for a small or medium-sized business will be able to apply for relief payments for lost income where they have been called out for more than 10 days this fire season, which in NSW has dragged on since August.
In a statement released on 29 December amid mounting pressure on the subject, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said these volunteer firefighters would be eligible to claim up to $300 per day to a maximum of $6,000 each for lost income.
The relief payments will also be tax-free and not means tested, meaning recipients will receive the full cash value, with payments due to be made available before the end of January 2020.
Mr Morrison said the payments would effectively equate to 20 days’ paid emergency leave.
“This announcement provides employees of small and medium-sized businesses and self-employed volunteers with the same level of support,” he said.
“We expect larger companies to provide their employees with 20 days of emergency services leave.”
Funding for the payments will come from the federal government, but be administered by the NSW government.
Mr Morrison emphasised “this is not about paying volunteers”, but covering lost income from people volunteering their time to fight the prolonged bushfire crisis that, according to the RFS, has burnt well over 3 million hectares of land in NSW alone – more than the entire size of the country of Belgium.
“The early and prolonged nature of this fire season has made a call beyond what is typically made on our volunteer firefighters,” the prime minister said.
“While I know RFS volunteers don’t seek payment for their service, I don’t want to see volunteers or their families unable to pay bills, or struggle financially as a result of the selfless contribution they are making.
“This is not about paying volunteers. It is about sustaining our volunteer efforts by protecting them from financial loss. It’s targeted and is the result of a direct request and consultation with the NSW RFS and NSW government.”
He said that $23 million in disaster recovery payments had already been paid out to affected families and businesses, “with more to come.”
Separately, Mr Morrison announced that federal public servants would permanently be given a minimum of 20 days’ paid leave for volunteering with firefighting efforts.
Meanwhile NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said that in her state, the government “already provides unlimited paid leave to all state public service employees who volunteer with the RFS or the other emergency services”, in addition to rest leave to aid recovery prior to returning to work.
“NSW has committed more than $166 million in additional natural disaster funding this bushfire season over and above our record firefighting budget,” she said.
“We are now pleased to provide administrative support to the Commonwealth to compensate our brave volunteers for loss of income.”
As of 2 January, three firefighters were among a number of deaths caused by the fires, which have destroyed more than 1,000 homes and an as yet unknown number of businesses in Australia’s most populous state.
In recent weeks, homes have also reportedly been destroyed in Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia.