On 29 December 2019 the Prime Minister announced ‘New Payments to Support NSW Volunteer Firefighters’. At the time I wrote ‘The details, not surprisingly, are not fleshed out in a news report …’ (Commonwealth to pay NSW to reimburse firefighters (December 29, 2019)) nor were they set out in the Prime Minister’s media release.
The NSW call for volunteers to Register interest in the Volunteer Firefighters’ Financial Support Program also provides little detail. It says:
A volunteer firefighter who:
- is from a recognised firefighting organisation in NSW
- has been volunteering as part of an operational response to bushfires for more than 10 days since 1 July 2019. This can include reasonable travel and recovery time but does not include training or participating in non-emergency operations (for example, hazard reduction burns).
- is self-employed or employed by a small or medium business (a business with less than $50 million turnover in the 2018-2019 financial year and/or less than 250 employees).
That gives little detail of what will be paid to whom. South Australia has also joined the scheme and it has been announced, today, that the ACT will also take part but I cannot find details of eligibility or how the payments will be managed in either of those jurisdictions.
Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) have provided explanations in a set of detailed Frequently Asked Questions, and answers. The Fassifern Guardian claims that the ‘Firefighter compensation [is a] government sham’ (Wendy Creighton 8 January 2020). The argument is, I infer, based on a claim that the details set out by QFES are inconsistent with the Prime Minister’s statement. The Prime Minister’s announcement says:
Rural Fire Service Volunteers in NSW who are self-employed or work for small and medium businesses, and who have been called out for more than 10 days this fire season, will be able to apply for the payments.
The payments will provide for lost income of up to $300 per day up to a total of up to $6,000 per person.
These payments are tax free and will not be means-tested, but are targeted to those most likely to suffer lost income by volunteering for extended periods of time.
For most, this will represent the equivalent of at least 20 days’ emergency leave for employees of small and medium sized businesses and volunteers who are self employed.
The Prime Minister says this will include farmers, small business owners, tradies and contract workers in rural and regional areas who have been hit especially hard by this fire season…
“This is not about paying volunteers. It is about sustaining our volunteer efforts by protecting them from financial loss…”
The Fassifern Guardian says this is a sham because it does not meet expectations. It lists the apparent contradictions as:
Eligibility criteria: 10 days or more volunteering as a Rural Fire Brigade member fighting fire
Compensation: $300 per day up to a maximum of $6,000
The reality in Queensland
- Volunteer becomes eligible to claim for days on the fire line after fighting fires for 10 days – cannot claim for first 10 days, can only claim for days after the first 10
- Can only claim for those hours fighting the fires within normal working hours e.g. if a firefighter fought fire for 18 hours on one day and only 4 of the 18 hours were within the volunteer’s normal working day, then can only claim for those 4 hours
- If a firefighter made up the hours away from work by working at night or on the weekend, or received payment from their employer, then cannot claim those hours
- Must prove loss of income
- Volunteer can only claim a daily rate commensurate with their normal daily wage, after tax, up to a maximum of $300
- If a volunteer works part time and they fought a fire on days that they do not normally work, then they cannot claim for those days
- If a volunteer is retired, then they cannot claim any days
- If a volunteer is a primary producer then they must be able to prove that if they had stayed home on the days they fought the fire, they would have made money.
I agree (for what it’s worth) with one of their claims. As I read the initial announcement, I too understood that a firefighter who served 11 days could claim the $300/day for the full 11 days. That would, however, raise an inequity in that a fire fighter who lost income over 10 days got nothing, where one who served 11 days got paid for 11 days. The QFES however gives this example of eligibility:
For example, Mark has volunteered for 15 days, in an eligible role, so can claim lost income for the 5 additional days he volunteered, over the 10 days minimum.
That reduces the inequity. It means those volunteers that are losing their income are asked to give 10 days on their own ‘coin’. It means a person who volunteers for 10 days gets nothing and a volunteer who serves for 20 days gets paid for 10, but both have lost 10 days income. It does equate to 20 days paid emergency services leave, but only after 10 days initial service. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether that is actually inconsistent with the Prime Minister’s announcement.
As for the need to prove loss of income, that is inherent in the initial announcement. The announcement said ‘The payments will provide for lost income of up to $300…’ it did not say it was a per day payment of $300. It is to cover lost income up to but not necessarily $300. Their claim that the promise was ‘$300 per day up to a maximum of $6,000’ is clearly not what was in the PM’s announcement.
Because it is about loss of income it stands to reason that a person has to demonstrate that they did lose income. Equally it stands to reason that a person who was volunteering when they would not otherwise be working or has been paid by their employer is not eligible for the payment as they have not lost income. It also stands to reason that volunteer who ‘works part time and they fought a fire on days that they do not normally work, then they cannot claim for those days’ and ‘a volunteer [who] is retired …cannot claim any days’. If the Fassifern Guardian thinks that is inconsistent with the Prime Minister’s promise then they did not read the media release.
One controversial claim is the claim that a firefighter:
Can only claim for those hours fighting the fires within normal working hours e.g. if a firefighter fought fire for 18 hours on one day and only 4 of the 18 hours were within the volunteer’s normal working day, then can only claim for those 4 hours.
A firefighter who normally works 9am to 5pm but volunteers from 3pm to midnight, but then doesn’t go to work the next day in order to return to the fireground at 3pm has surely lost income as a result of volunteer. I don’t however see that the QFES says that person is not eligible. There is no statement that relates to ‘normal working hours.’ The phrase ‘normal working hours’ doesn’t appear in the FAQs at all. The FAQ’s provide details of how to prove a loss of income including for those that that are casual or part-time workers or who work different hours across the financial year but the assertion that a firefighter ‘Can only claim for those hours fighting the fires within normal working hours’ is not expressly stated nor, from what I can read, is it implied.
Like the Fassifern Guardian I was surprised to see that eligibility did not go back to day one once a volunteer had been on duty for more than 10 days, but that seems fair and does not strike me as being actually inconsistent with what the Prime Minister said.
The claim that the promise was ‘$300 per day up to a maximum of $6,000’ is clearly wrong. The announcement was always that compensation was for lost income up to a maximum of $300/day. Because it was compensation for lost income the demand that claimants must prove their loss is to be expected as is the fact that people who have not lost income, either because they would not have earned income or because they were paid by their employer, are not eligible. That was clear in the Prime Minister’s announcement.
It is not clear where the claim that a firefighter can ‘only claim for those hours fighting the fires within normal working hours’ comes from. It is neither expressly stated, nor implied, in the QFES details.