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Action needed to fix the pandemic insurance gap for volunteers

14 July 2020 at 4:50 pm
Luke Michael
Charities are hesitant to bring back volunteers because there is no insurance cover for COVID-19 related claims

Luke Michael | 14 July 2020 at 4:50 pm


Action needed to fix the pandemic insurance gap for volunteers
14 July 2020 at 4:50 pm

Charities are hesitant to bring back volunteers because there is no insurance cover for COVID-19 related claims

Victorian volunteers have been given access to COVID-19 support payments amid calls for other state and territory governments to better protect volunteers during the pandemic.

Volunteering advocates are concerned by a pandemic insurance gap, created because most volunteering insurance policies only cover injury and not illness – meaning if someone contracts COVID-19 while volunteering, they could incur out-of-pocket medical expenses. 

It also means if someone has to self-isolate for 14 days because they interacted with a COVID-positive person through their volunteering activities, they might not have access to paid pandemic or personal leave in their paid employment.

Through the COVID-19 Worker Support Payment, eligible Victorian workers will be given a one-off $1,500 payment to financially support them if forced to self-isolate, even if they come into contact with COVID-19 through volunteering.

Sue Woodward, the head of Justice Connect’s Not-for-profit Law service, told Pro Bono News the Victorian government’s COVID-19 support payment was a “vital gap filler for volunteers”. 

She encouraged other states and territories to take similar action. 

“We need all the states and territories to follow suit. And for governments to continue to work with the sector about how to encourage and support paid and unpaid workers,” Woodward said.

“Because currently there’s a gap. And we need to show volunteers that we’ve got their back when they’ve served their community during the pandemic.” 

Research shows around two in three volunteers stopped volunteering between February and April this year, and advocates worry this issue might discourage volunteers returning once restrictions ease.

There is also the risk an organisation will be held liable if a volunteer is infected with COVID-19, although Woodward said this was “unlikely if organisations follow the health orders“.  

Volunteers have been asked to sign documents acknowledging they are not covered by insurance for COVID-19 related claims, which is something that could also deter volunteering.

Mark Pearce, the interim CEO of Volunteering Australia, told Pro Bono News these difficulties came at a time when volunteers were more vital than ever.

“We desperately need to see volunteers providing that community benefit again, but this issue means organisations are hesitant to re-engage their volunteer workforce,” Pearce said.

“The other thing is that it stops corporate volunteering from occurring because corporates are far less inclined to send their paid workers back into a volunteering environment during a pandemic.”

Pearce said Volunteering Australia was engaging with the government to try and fix the problem, and noted that the Insurance Council of Australia needed to be involved in working out a longer-term solution. 

A spokesperson for the Insurance Council of Australia would not comment on any long-term solution, but reiterated to Pro Bono News that volunteer insurance policies were likely to exclude claims related to pandemics, infectious or transmissible diseases. 

Pearce said the ideal solution would be for volunteer insurance products to include illness during pandemics.

“Overall, we’re looking to make sure that volunteers are no worse off purely because they’re volunteers compared with people who are in paid employment,” he said.

Woodward suggested other options to tackle the problem, such as including volunteers under existing (state-run) workers compensation schemes for out of pocket COVID-19 costs. 

She also suggested creating a government-backed indemnity or contingent liability fund for COVID-19 payments to volunteers. 

This could be subject to defined criteria and a cap, with co-contribution from key sector insurers as part of a corporate social responsibility approach.

“It would be good to see the business sector coming to the table via the Insurance Council or key insurers so a creative solution is found,” she said.

“And it doesn’t have to be some complex, massive thing. It could actually be done in quite a tailored and contained way.”

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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One comment

  • Mend It, Australia says:

    Organisations, insurance companies, volunteering bodies et al are still not getting it! People will usually determine how they want to volunteer. Once organisations get that fact and genuinely respect it, a solution can be explored together. A solution could be to tailor an arrangement based on the volunteer’s personal risk profile and specific job or activity to be undertaken. At the moment volunteer arrangements, despite the rhetoric, are all about organisations protecting their brands and insurance companies not keen on paying out or joining in on the conversation, it appears.

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