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Legal help for community organisations

Volunteers and COVID-19

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If your organisation relies on volunteers, you'll need to consider their safety as part of your operations. This page contains answers to the most frequently asked questions about volunteer safety and volunteering during COVID-19.

Our service relies on volunteers – can we ask them to continue to volunteer with us or to start returning to the workplace?

What happens if a volunteer contracts COVID-19 and they aren't covered by volunteer person   accident insurance? Could we be held liable (legally responsible)?

Should we let volunteers work from home?

We are getting lots of interest from people who want to volunteer with us. How do we manage   this safely?

Should we have a policy that addresses volunteering in a COVID-19 environment?

Our service relies on volunteers – can we ask them to continue to volunteer with us or to start returning to the workplace?

Whether or not volunteers can or should physically return to the workplace depends on a range of factors, including where your organisation is located in Australia.  If your organisation is considering whether to ask volunteers to continue volunteering with your organisation or to start returning to the workplace, check out our fact sheet ‘Managing the return of volunteers to the workplace’. 

State and territory public health guidelines and orders set out restrictions on gatherings and movement. Some of these address volunteers directly. As each state and territory’s social distancing restrictions change, you need to make sure your volunteers can return to, or continue, volunteering with your organisation.

State and territory public health guidelines

You can check the latest guidelines through the relevant state and territory links below.

ACT - ACT Public Health Emergency Directions

NSW - NSW Public Health Orders

NT - NT Chief Health Officer Directions

Qld - Qld Chief Health Officer Public Health Directions

SA - SA Emergency Management Directions

Tas - Tas Directions and Notices

Vic - Vic Chief Health Officer Directions

WA - WA Directions

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.

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What happens if a volunteer contracts COVID-19 and they aren't covered by volunteer person accident insurance? Could we 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.

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Should we let volunteers work from home?

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.

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We are getting lots of interest from people who want to volunteer with us. How do we 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 

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Should we have a policy that addresses volunteering in a COVID-19 environment?  

If possible, organisations should consider:
  • 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)
It’s important that senior members of your organisation are aware of this plan and their associated responsibilities.

Other options to a COVID-19 policy

Given the evolution of the COVID-19 situation and depending on your circumstances, a specific COVID-19 policy may not be prudent nor effective. However, your organisation could consider other options. For example, if it’s practical, you could appoint a COVID-19 risk manager to be responsible for:
  • 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
This person could also be responsible for informing volunteers (and staff more generally) of your organisation's response, the measures your organisation has implemented, and how your organisation is managing risk, reputation, workplace culture, mental health and morale impacts in the face of unique, rapidly changing circumstances.

Return to the workplace plan

As part of your plan to return to work (see ‘How do we plan our return to work?’), you may need to review existing policies or develop new ones. 
 
Consider whether your current policies appropriately address arrangements to foster safe flexible work, mental health and WHS practices as part of your organisation’s return to work plan. These policies should address these issues for all of your workers, including your volunteers.
 
 
Last Updated: 12 March 2021