What are my workplace rights during an emergency or natural disaster?


With parts of Australia battling widespread flooding, some employees may be unable to attend work, or their workplaces may need to close due to safety concerns. If you have been affected, it might be helpful to know what workplace entitlements or arrangements you can access in an emergency or natural disaster.


Leave entitlements

Employees can request access to several paid and unpaid leave entitlements if affected by a natural disaster or to assist with emergency management. These include:

Annual leave – For full and part-time employees, paid annual leave can be taken at any time agreed on by both employer and employee. Your employer can only refuse your leave request if the refusal is reasonable.

Sick and carer’s leave – An employee can take sick or carer’s leave because of personal injury or illness or to care for or support a member of their family or household. For example, if you are injured in the floodwaters or your child’s school is forced to close, and you need to care for them. Both full-time and part-time employees can access this leave by notifying their employer and, if asked, producing evidence such as a medical certificate. Casual employees or employees who have used all their paid sick and carer’s leave are entitled to two days of unpaid leave.

Community service leave – Community service leave is a form of unpaid leave that all employees, including casual workers, are entitled to for certain emergency management activities. There is no limit on the amount of community service leave an employee can take, provided what they are doing fits the definition of a voluntary emergency management activity. For example, when volunteers of a State Emergency Service (SES) have received a request to volunteer in response to the floods.


What are my rights if my workplace cannot operate?

Some businesses might need to temporarily close or shut down operations in an emergency or natural disaster. In these circumstances, employers may be able to stand down an employee.

During a stand-down period, your employer is not required to pay you, however, your leave entitlements accrue in the usual way. Some awards, agreements or employment contracts contain additional rules about placing employees on unpaid standdown, so it is important to check your agreement for clarification.

For employees with accrued paid leave entitlements (such as annual leave), employers may give the option of using this during the stand-down period, but it is up to the employee to decide whether to take their paid leave or remain unpaid during the stand-down.

As a result of the pandemic, many workplaces are now set up for employees to work from home. For these businesses, flexible work arrangements relating to the hours and location where work can be performed may enable both employer and employee to navigate any challenges associated with a natural disaster or emergency. Speak to your employer if you think a flexible work arrangement would work for you in the circumstances.


Written by Trent Hancock

Disclaimer: This article should not be construed as legal advice and is not intended as such. If readers wish to obtain advice about anything contained in this article, they should speak with a lawyer and discuss their individual circumstances.