In other blog posts, I’ve written about the employment protection that is available for emergency service volunteers: see –
- Employment protection during a NSW s 44 fire – amended (February 20, 2017);
- Employment Protection for NSW Volunteers (June 9, 2016);
- Employment protection for emergency service volunteers in Western Australia (February 3, 2015); and
- Employment protection for NSW volunteers (March 8, 2012)),
but what about protection for university students?
Today’s correspondent, a university student and a volunteer with NSW SES, writes:
Recently, the Sydney metro area was hit but a severe wind storm and I was called out to duties with the SES. I failed to complete an online quiz that was due to my emergency callout with the SES. My subject coordinators response has been disappointing; basically, telling me I should have done it earlier. My question to you is twofold, one: is there any legislation that prevents me from being discriminated against on the basis on my SES volunteer duties in this case, similar to employment protections? Second, in your professional opinion, was the response of my subject coordinator reasonable. I sent multiple emails explaining the nature of the SES. I got the impression that they were misunderstanding its role as an emergency service.
Before I proceed let me acknowledge my conflict of interest – I work for a university and I’m being asked to comment on an unnamed and unknown professional colleague, but still a colleague. I’m going to be circumspect about doing that on the basis of the information I’ve been given.
The relevant employment legislation is Section 60B of the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1999 (NSW) which says:
An employer must not victimise an employee of the employer for being absent if the absence was due to the employee taking part in emergency operations as a member of an emergency services organisation and the absence occurred while this Part applied to the operations (pursuant to an order of the Premier under this Part).
Section s 772 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) says an employee’s employment must not be terminated due to ‘temporary absence from work for the purpose of engaging in a voluntary emergency management activity, where the absence is reasonable having regard to all the circumstances.’
None of those provisions are going to extend to a student and issues of assessment. I don’t know what University my correspondent attends (though clearly it’s in NSW), so I’m going to draw on two universities that I’ve worked at, the University of New England (UNE) based in NSW and the Australian National University (ANU) in the ACT.
The UNE has issued ‘Elite Athlete, Australian Defence Force (ADF) Reserve and Emergency Services Volunteer Students Procedures’. The aim of those procedures is to support:
… Students who are formally recognised Elite Athletes, or who are members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Reserves and/or an Emergency Services Volunteer and provides strategies that ensure that they are not unduly disadvantaged academically or financially as a consequence of their participation in these activities.
With respect to emergency service volunteers the procedure says:
(16) An Emergency Service Volunteer who is called upon for continuous full-time service shall provide the Head of School with a statement signed by an authorised emergency service officer detailing the expected duration of full-time service.
(17) The Head of School will ensure that Unit Coordinators for units being undertaken by the Student are notified of the approved absence and that clause 20 is applied where possible. Students must submit applications for special consideration and/or special assessment in accordance with clause 21.
Clause 20 provides that one of the ways to accommodate an emergency service volunteer is to provide ‘special consideration in the form of extensions or variation of time normally required to complete an assessment task or unit …’
No accommodation is guaranteed. It remains the case that a student must meet the academic standards of the unit and sometimes it’s not possible to grant the requested extension or other special consideration. One option is that a student may be allowed to withdraw from the unit without academic or financial penalty if their service means they have not, and cannot, complete the academic requirements (see cl 21-23).
The ANU provides for emergency services leave for employees (as does UNE) but it does not make any reference to emergency service commitments in the ANU assessment policy.
The difference between ANU and UNE suggests the first thing to do (and this applies to anyone, anytime) is ‘check the rules’. Look to see if there are provisions in the University’s rules and policies that make provision for emergency service by students and what the university expects from unit coordinators.
In the absence of any specific rule the student needs to rely on general rules for extension of time or alternative assessment. Every university will have a rule to provide for those where a student becomes ill or is otherwise unable to complete assessment due to circumstances beyond their control.
That raises the first issue. The weather that caused the event is beyond the student’s control, but the choice to volunteer is not. Volunteering is just that – a choice, and it always has to be balanced against other commitments. Many people can’t get away because of work or family commitments. A choice to prioritise volunteer service over university assessment is indeed a choice.
So is the course coordinator being reasonable? That would depend on several factors. First and foremost, is there a relevant university policy, what does it say and is it being complied with. If the response comes down to the coordinator’s discretion one has to consider (and here my conflict, as I’m a university lecturer will become clear):
- How long did the student have to complete the task? If it’s been available for a long time but the student planned to complete it on the day it was due then there is an argument (and I’ve used it) to say that one should plan to do a task early so if there is a problem, you have time to make it good. If you leave it to the last minute and then chose to volunteer, or get sick, then that’s just bad planning.
- Did the student make any effort to let the coordinator know of the issue before the due date?
- How many marks is the task worth and/or is it compulsory? If it’s a high number of marks or if failure to complete means a failure in the unit then it would be more reasonable to accommodate the student.
- Has the correct answer or model answer (depending on the type of task) been circulated? If it has a student can’t complete it now and it may not be possible to write a new task for one student.
- How was it delivered? An online quiz can be automated so that it is released on a given date, and then removed at a given date. Restoring it for one student can also be problematic.
Because I don’t know any of the answer to any of those questions I can’t express an opinion on whether the response of the subject coordinator was reasonable or not.
Easy way to avoid this whole discussion. Volunteers should never, ever, turn out to a callout if there’s a chance that their work/family/study will be seriously disrupted by it. Paid emergency workers are compensated financially for the disruption that their jobs cause to the other parts of their lives; the joy of volunteering is that you never have to go – someone else can go, no callout is worth risking your employment or your (expensive) degree for.
I think that the previous comment was unfair. Volunteers are passionate about what they do and it’s easy to get caught up in the emergency that presents. Volunteering is valuable as it teaches students skills and graduate attributes you can not learn through classes. Universities should be supportive of learning and student development in both conventional and unconventional ways.
All unis have a grievance procedures policy which will help you escalate your disagreement. You could also contact the student union for help. Additionally you can write to the Dean of your degree or the Vice Chancellor.
Best of luck and keep up the good work helping out your community!
One needs to set priorities and stay focussed. If you’re studying for a vocation and a career you’re passionate about, then focus on it.
Not every employer has policies for leave for volunteers to attend callouts.
The more I reflect on this, and the responses thus far, I can’t help but comment further.
I’m a former volunteer of 16 years and have also held various senior management roles, which now includes CEO of global operation.
Whilst I 100% support volunteering and will speak volumes of the value the experience can bring to the person, the other side is that I have a business to run. My business doesn’t exist if people aren’t there servicing my clients. My clients book, often up to 6 months or more in advance for us to undertake work for them. Coupled with this is a 24/7 on-call capability which may require us to mobilise a crew within hours or days, anywhere in the world.
If an employee feels that the needs of the community or themselves is more important than their role in my business, then there will be issues. That’s the cold hard truth! It’s not about not understanding volunteers. It’s not about not wanting them to support and be there for their community (remember, I did it for 16 years too). And it’s not about me not wanting to support the community as well.
It’s simply business. Whilst I have some flexibility at times to back fill someone who is absent for any reason, that’s not often the case.
If the business doesn’t service the clients, then the business doesn’t make money. If the business doesn’t make money, there is no business which in turn means there is no job for the person to fill in the first place.
Whilst I appreciate the intent of “support volunteers!” response above, it’s not reflective of the realities of business.
As per Michael’s post, volunteers should check the Uni’s (or workplace) arrangements prior to challenging or questioning the policy. Many will be flexible to a degree where possible, but it’s not a given and nor should it be. As I’ve said to a few people, one pays the bills, one doesn’t…
Likewise, if you’re studying, then you need to remain focused on the big picture or the end goal- that’s your qualification at the end of the study.
Luke, I think you will find if you are an employer (which you state you are) then your employees are entitled to certain entitlements under the National Employment Standards (NES).
The standard that you are talking about ignoring and not allowing your employee is Community Service Leave which is something that applies to all volunteers of Emergency Management Bodies, whether they be Fire, SES, Ambulance or other services such as the Red Cross, RSPCA, etc.
There used to be exclusions listed, however they no longer seem to appear. If you have any employees who are emergency volunteers, you might want to rethink your company policies because you could find yourself in breach of the Fair Work Act if you don’t comply with the required NES or specific standards for your state/territory
You can find more info on the Fairwork website here: https://www.fairwork.gov.au/how-we-will-help/templates-and-guides/fact-sheets/minimum-workplace-entitlements/community-service-leave
Whilst Luke is perfectly capable of speaking for himself, I do note he said ‘Whilst I have some flexibility at times to back fill someone who is absent for any reason, that’s not often the case.’ The Fair Work Standards that you’ve linked to say that the employee’s community leave must be ‘reasonable in all the circumstances’ and as Luke noted sometimes that can’t be ‘drop and go’. Can you imagine a bus driver who simply gets out of his or her bus or worse, drives it to the SES shed and leaves the passengers there when the pager goes off? Or the surgeon who walks out of the operating theatre? I don’t think Luke is saying that he denies every employee emergency services leave, but sometimes it isn’t possible.
Spot on Michael. There has to be give and take and flexibility. Likewise, consideration needs to be given to how often it is being done, how long for, etc.