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Whether volunteers can or should physically return to the workplace depends on a range of factors, including where your organisation is located in Australia.
Our fact sheet (below) on managing the return of volunteers to the workplace considers the following questions:
- Can (and should) you ask volunteers to return to the workplace?
- Does your organisation have any special obligations for handling this type of health information about volunteers?
- How does your organisation decide whether to ask volunteers to return to the workplace?
- If you ask a volunteer to stop volunteering with your organisation, could you be in breach of anti-discrimination laws?
- Can you ask your volunteers for medical clearance before allowing them to return to the workplace?
- What happens if a volunteer contracts COVID-19 and is not covered by volunteer personal accident insurance? Could your organisation be held liable (legally responsible)?
- Can your organisation ask your volunteers to sign a waiver to protect the organisation from liability in the event they contract COVID-19?
- What should your organisation do if a volunteer refuses to follow a COVID-safe plan or follow preventative measures?
Remember – volunteers don’t have a legal obligation to attend the workplace, or to continue to volunteer for your organisation. Check-in with your volunteers regularly and ask if they feel comfortable continuing to volunteer. You can find more information about the nature of the volunteering relationship in Part 2 of our National Volunteer Guide
Organisations who engage court-ordered volunteers, or mutual obligation volunteers should speak to their government contact about the best steps to take.
When asking volunteers to return to the workplace, remember that community organisations must consider the 'two sides to safety’ – that is, both the safety of the volunteer, as well as the safety of the people that the volunteer is interacting with, such as clients, employees, other volunteers and members of the public.
Managing the safety of the volunteer
Community organisations’ responsibilities to their volunteers are set out in common and statutory law. Organisations have a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of their volunteers to the extent reasonably possible and they owe a duty of care to their volunteers. COVID-19 can be regarded as a foreseeable risk from which community groups are required to take reasonable steps to protect volunteers.
Managing the safety of the people your volunteer is interacting with
Community organisations have a responsibility to take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of people interacting with their volunteers. Accordingly, where a volunteer exposes another person, such as a client or service-user, to infection or harm, your organisation may be responsible.
You can find more information about volunteer safety in Part 3 of our National Volunteer Guide.
What happens if a volunteer contracts COVID-19 and they aren't covered by volunteer person accident insurance? Could your organisation be held liable (legally responsible)?
An organisation could be held liable in certain circumstances. Organisations have safety obligations under the common law (judge-made law) of negligence, under the negligence provisions in state and territory legislation and in many circumstances under work health and safety (otherwise known as occupational health and safety, or occupational safety and health) laws.
To work out how these ‘safety’ laws apply to your organisations, see Part 3 of our National Volunteer Guide
Under these laws, all organisations are required to take action to manage the risk of COVID-19 to workers (including volunteers) and others in the work environment. The outbreak of COVID-19 can be regarded as a foreseeable risk from which community groups are required to take reasonable steps to protect volunteers, and the people the volunteers interact with.
Organisations must comply with national and state or territory public health directions about COVID-19. If your organisation fails to comply with a direction issued by your state or territory government or the federal government in relation to, for example, refusing to allow your workers or volunteers to stop work where directed to by the government, your organisation could face legal consequences.
Following these steps should mean there is a relatively low risk of your organisation being found to be liable (for example, in negligence) for any injury, loss or damage suffered by a volunteer as a consequence of COVID-19.
Organisations will need to balance the risk to health and safety against the critical services your organisation provides carefully.
The volunteer 'pandemic insurance gap'
Volunteers may fall into the ‘pandemic insurance gap’. Generally speaking, volunteers are not covered by workers compensation insurance and are unlikely to be covered by volunteer personal accident insurance in these circumstances. If your organisation has volunteer personal accident insurance, check with your broker about what is and what is not covered, including asking volunteers to work remotely. Also, read our COVID-19 resources on insurance.
It depends. Allowing volunteers to work from home may not be sensible in all situations. If your volunteers require high levels of supervision (for example, engaging with difficult or challenging clients), your organisation may need to consider whether it’s appropriate to ask your volunteers to work remotely. Remember, you have a duty of care to ensure the safety (physical and psychological) of your volunteers and clients, and this can be difficult to monitor if your volunteers are working remotely.
If it’s safe to have your volunteers volunteer remotely, make sure they have the necessary equipment, training, and a safe environment in which to work.
Consider what measures your organisation can put in place to support volunteers. This could include, for example, conducting meetings through video-conferencing and sending work to be reviewed by email.
If any of your volunteers have a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 or have been exposed to a confirmed or suspected case, your organisation should encourage them to self-isolate for the recommended number of days for the health and safety of your other volunteers, employees and clients.
Your organisation may be getting lots of interest from people who want to volunteer with you. How do you manage this safely?
If your organisation wants to recruit new volunteers, it should be able to do this if risks are managed carefully. Regardless of the current situation, organisations still have legal obligations to recruit and induct volunteers.
Recruiting safely during COVID-19
Your organisation could consider reviewing existing recruitment processes to minimise face-to-face contact. For example, your organisation could request applications by email only, and conduct interviews via telephone calls or video-conferencing. Consider moving any onboarding and training processes online. Also consider, for any roles likely to require physical proximity, whether medical clearance should be required as a condition to accepting any applicant.
For more information, see Part 5 of our National Volunteer Guide
- implementing a Pandemic or Infectious Diseases Plan that is consistent with the Australian Department of Health and your state or territory health department information, or
- adapting an existing risk management plan that takes into account COVID-19 (or similar situations)
Other options to a COVID-19 policy
- monitoring changes and informing senior staff members, and
- being a point of contact for volunteers (and employees) who are concerned, have any questions or wish to report that they have been diagnosed with, or exposed to, COVID-19