Bushfires threaten the township of Harrington in November 2019

With bushfires continuing to threaten individuals and businesses across Australia, recovery efforts are already underway.

The Commonwealth has extended its disaster recovery payment and disaster recovery allowances for people who have been significantly affected by or have lost income as a result of fires.

For business that have suffered physical or financial damage, there are a number of additional services available to help make sure you’re up and running again as quickly as possible.

So far, disaster recovery payments and allowances have seen families, small businesses and farmers access more than $100 million worth of assistance.

The NSW Small Business Commission provides an in-depth Recovery Toolkit designed to act as a guide for getting back to business.

Financial Assistance
Disaster Recovery Grants and Relief Loans

In NSW, the Rural Assistance Authority is administering natural disaster recovery grants to provide immediate relief to eligible primary producers and small businesses for clean-up and restoration costs. Grants of up to $15,000 are now available in local government areas affected by the NSW bushfires that have occurred from 31 August 2019.

Additionally, small businesses in NSW who have been directly affected by a declared natural disaster including floods, fires or storm damage may be eligible for low-interest loans up to $130,000.

In South Australia, grants up to $10,000 are available for eligible small businesses affected by the Cudlee Creek and Kangaroo Island bushfires.

Disaster assistance has been activated for small businesses affected by bushfires in the Scenic Rim Regional Council and Southern Downs Regional Council areas in Queensland. Eligible small businesses can apply through Business Queensland for low-interest Disaster Assistance Loans of up to $250,000, as well as Disaster Assistance (Essential Working Capital) Loans of up to $100,000 to help with business expenses such as wages and rent.

Tax assistance

For business addresses listed under one of the affected postcodes, the Australian Tax Office has automatically granted deferrals for activity statement lodgements and payments due.

Financial assistance from banks

“Banks have hardship teams that are ready to assist customers affected by natural disasters such as these, offering help which can include deferring loan repayments, waiving fees and consolidating debt to make it more manageable,” said acting CEO of the Australian Banking Association (ABA) Vanessa Beggs.

ABA member banks offer a range of services to help customers affected by bushfires or other circumstances outside their control, including waiving fees and charges; waiving penalties for early withdrawal of term deposits; deferring loan payments; deferring upcoming credit card payments and increasing emergency limits and/or helping with debt consolidation.

The ABA has a list of contact numbers of financial hardship teams for individual banks and encourages affected Australians to contact their bank to access a wide range of available assistance.

Legal support
Insurance claims

In a statement, the Insurance Council of Australia said “insurers have received 8985 claims since September from New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. Many more claims are expected to be lodged in coming days and weeks. Insurance losses stand at $700 million.”

The Insurance Council’s disaster hotline 1800 734 621 can provide guidance about claims processes.

Legal aid

Free help for bushfire victims is available through Legal Aid Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria and the Legal Services Commission of South Australia. Each of these provide information about dealing with insurers after natural disasters.

For free legal help call:

  • Queensland bushfire legal help on 1300 004 924
  • The Disaster Response Legal Service NSW on 1800 801 529
  • The Disaster Legal Help Victoria on 1800 113 432
  • The South Australian Legal Helpline on 1300 366 424

Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) is an independent dispute resolution service provided free to consumers. The AFCA can help anyone having difficulty with their insurer regarding a claim and can be contacted on 1800 931 678.

Employer and employee entitlements

The Fair Work Ombudsman has compiled information regarding workplace rights and entitlements for employers and employees affected by natural disasters, including bushfires and smoke.

Employees are entitled to a range of paid and unpaid leave options if they are affected by bushfires or smoke, including annual leave, sick and carer’s leave (paid and unpaid) and community service leave. The Defence Reserve Service (Protection) Act 2001 provides for a number of rights and protections for Reservists absent on defence service, including the right to be released from work and to continue to be employed on their return.

If bushfires, smoke or haze mean a business cannot stay open, employers may be able to stand down an employee. During this period an employee doesn’t need to be paid, while leave continues to accrue in the usual way. Depending on the applicable award, agreement or contract there could be extra rules. The FWO has more information about pay during inclement weather and stand down.

Flexible working arrangements may help some employers and employees manage their needs during the bushfires. Learn more about flexible working arrangements to make sure minimum entitles are still met.

Contact the FWO directly on 13 13 94 between 8am and 5:30pm if your query is urgent.

Mental health

Like all natural disasters, bushfires can cause significant emotional stress with the possibility of long-term effects. A number of services are available to provide support during and in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Psychological responses can include: feeling stressed, anxious, shocked, sad, angry, exhausted, overwhelmed or confused; feeling uncertain about the future; feeling isolated or withdrawn; feeling physical unwell and thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

Toolkits for recovering from a natural disaster and understanding the link between mental health and natural disasters are available from Lifeline and Beyond Blue

People looking for support can access the below services:

  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Headspace on 1800 650 890

If symptoms are intense or don’t abate after a few weeks, check in with your GP or a mental health professional.

This list will continue to be updated.

Image: The township of Harrington on the NSW mid-coast during November 2019 fires. Credit: Kelly-ann Oosterbeek via The Courier

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