Dealing with volunteers during COVID-19

Volunteers covid 19 header

Justice Connect’s Not-for-profit Law service has compiled these answers to questions about dealing with volunteers during the pandemic, and we thank them for sharing them with us as part of the Save Our Sector campaign to assist not-for-profits. We’ve abridged some of the answers for brevity and style and added some additional resources.

1. Our service relies on volunteers. Can we ask them to continue to volunteer with us?

State and territory public health guidelines and orders set out varying restrictions on gatherings and movement. Some of these address volunteers directly. Here are links to relevant public health directions and notices: ACT | NSW | NT | QLD | SA | TAS | VIC | WA

Remember, volunteers do not 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. More information about the nature of the volunteering relationship can be found in the National Volunteer Guide (links below).

Organisations that engage court-ordered volunteers or mutual obligation volunteers should speak to their government contact about the best steps to take.

2. Is it safe to have volunteers right now?

Recommendations on measures you should take to reduce the spread of COVID-19 are changing rapidly. To properly assess the risk to your organisation, your volunteers and the people your volunteers are interacting with, it’s important to closely monitor and comply with the latest information and guidelines provided by the World Health Organization, the Australian Department of Health, and your state or territory health department.

The risk to your volunteers will vary depending on your organisation and the industry in which you operate. As the situation continues to evolve rapidly, we recommend organisations conduct risk assessments as frequently as possible.

When thinking about volunteer safety while COVID-19 is prevalent, community organisations must consider the “two sides to safety” – that is, both the safety of the volunteer, and the safety of the people with whom the volunteer interacts, 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. The outbreak of COVID-19 can be regarded as a foreseeable risk, and community groups are required to take reasonable steps to protect volunteers in light of that risk.

Managing the safety of the people with whom your volunteers interact

Community organisations have a responsibility to take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of people interacting with their volunteers. In each Australian jurisdiction, legislation sets out special protection for volunteers from personal liability for anything done, or not done, in good faith when performing community work for a community organisation. Accordingly, where a volunteer exposes another person, such as a client or service-user, to infection or harm, your organisation may be responsible.

Read more about volunteer safety in Part 3 of the National Volunteer Guide.

3. What reasonable precautions can our organisation take to manage the safety of volunteers?

The reasonable precautions you can take depend on factors including:

  • the nature of their responsibilities
  • the size and resources of the organisation
  • the nature of the workplace and vulnerabilities of volunteers and service users
  • the guidelines and directions issued by government.

​Our Community has published this Epidemic & Pandemic Policy, which you can adapt to suit your organisation, and this returning to work guide, which examines managing risk.

4. Could we be held liable if we asked our volunteers to keep volunteering?

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 laws (occupational health and safety laws).

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, and community groups are required to take reasonable steps to protect volunteers, and the people with whom volunteers interact, in light of that risk.

Organisations must comply with national and state public health directions in relation to COVID-19. If your organisation fails to comply with a direction issued by your state government or the federal 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 carefully balance the risk to health and safety against the critical services your organisation provides.

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.

Here’s a Q&A about options from Aon, the preferred insurer for both Our Community and Volunteering Australia.

5. 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 is 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.

Tips for working from home | Returning to the workplace

If it’s safe to have your volunteers volunteer remotely, make sure they have the necessary equipment and 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 via video and sending work to be reviewed by email.

If any of your volunteers has a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19, you should follow appropriate safety protocols.

6. If our volunteers are working from home, do we need to conduct a safety inspection?

Ordinarily, it would be ideal to have an appropriate person conduct a risk assessment onsite at the volunteer's proposed remote working premises. However, this can be difficult in the current environment.

Instead, we recommend providing a checklist or questionnaire for volunteers to complete themselves. This checklist or questionnaire could address elements such as the placement and height of chairs relative to desks, the angle of monitor screens or laptops, and the surrounding environment generally.

If a volunteer requests that your organisation conduct a physical inspection of the premises where they propose to work, consider whether this request is practicable for your organisation. When considering the request, make sure that conducting a physical inspection won’t expose any of your other workers to COVID-19 (for example, if the workers conduct an assessment at premises where there is a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19).

7. How do we prepare for a volunteer workforce shortage?

It’s important to consider and identify which functions of your organisation are critical, and which require volunteer assistance to operate smoothly. You can explore options such as:

  • changing roster arrangements to ensure adequate coverage of your organisation’s essential functions, or
  • letting staff and volunteers know that you may require them to be adaptable and flexible in the upcoming months while your organisation manages the COVID-19 pandemic.

8. We are getting lots of interest from people who want to volunteer with us during the COVID-19 outbreak. How do we safely manage this?

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 in relation to the recruitment and induction of volunteers.

For more information, read Part 5 of the National Volunteer Guide. See also the Good Jobs free employee induction manual.

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 or video. Consider moving any onboarding and training processes online. Also consider, for roles likely to require physical proximity, whether medical clearance should be required.

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

Organisations should consider:

  • implementing a Pandemic Plan or Infectious Diseases Plan that is consistent with World Health Organization and 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.

Given the rapid evolution of the COVID-19 situation and your circumstances, a specific COVID-19 policy may not be prudent nor effective. However, there are other options your organisation could consider. For example, if it is practical for your organisation, you may wish to 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 staff 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.

This is an abridged Q&A reproduced with permission. See the original version here.

#SaveOurSector
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This help sheet is just one of the ways the Our Community Group is working to support not-for-profits through the COVID-19 crisis, as part of our major campaign to help the not-for-profit sector to survive, re-invent and sustain.

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