Jacqui Antoniou - HR Professional
History shows us that vaccination programs are hugely impactful when it comes to protecting us from serious health issues. We don’t need to go too far back to look at the damaging impact of polio, measles and smallpox and the vast improvements that were seen as a result of vaccine programs. The COVID-19 vaccinations are highly anticipated and are key to really getting back to normal and reducing the risks of the virus. But as the COVID-19 vaccine starts to roll out across the Australia there is much speculation and subsequent debate as to whether an employer does or will have the right to direct their employees to get vaccinated.
EMPLOYER RIGHTS AND OBLIGATIONS
With all employment, employers do have the ability to request that an employee follow a reasonable and lawful direction. Businesses also have obligations to protect the health and safety of their employees, contractors and those that enter their workplace. So, directing all employees to get vaccinated makes sense, right?
Well, it’s not as simple as just directing a blanket “vaccinate or else” policy in the workplace. Many factors need to be taken into consideration such as:
Consideration also needs to be given to the fact that for the vast majority of Australians, the vaccine is not yet available and will not be for several months.
Notably, both the federal and state governments have not yet passed any public health directions that would enable employers to direct employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19. So, for now employers should not assume that they can direct their employees to get the jab.
In fact, it is our opinion that it would not be considered reasonable or lawful, for most employers to direct an employee to receive a vaccination unless by not doing so it would put others at significant risk. The exception to this blanket opinion is workers in health care or aged care, where it could well be deemed a reasonable direction.
It makes sense that frontline workers such as health care professionals and aged care workers receive the vaccination as it is a powerful tool in keeping them safe and stopping the spread of the virus in high-risk areas. Yet while they are among the first to have access to the jab and it is highly recommended, it is not compulsory per government regulations and employers even in these industries, may face difficulty in having a direction in these circumstances be deemed lawful and reasonable. It is indeed a strange new world.
REFUSAL TO ATTEND WORK?
What about employees who refuse to attend work if their colleagues have not been vaccinated? Some may believe they have the right to do this if they believe attending their workplace would expose them to a serious risk to their health and safety. However, Safe Work Australia has already advised that “there is currently insufficient evidence about the impact of COVID-19 vaccines on the transmission of COVID-19. Therefore, there is no reason why workers who are currently attending workplaces with other people should stop doing so because of the vaccine rollout.”
SO WHAT CAN EMPLOYERS DO NOW?
For some, vaccinations are a fraught and very personal decision with some vehemently opposed to the practice. For others, the COVID-19 vaccine is specifically challenging as there is some fear and uncertainty which appears to be linked to the speed at which it was developed along with some confusing and often incorrect information in the public sphere. And then there is the group that front up for the jab because they are keen to get back to normal or they feel it is their societal duty. Whatever the case, you must be aware of the varying responses and ensure that your communications regarding your businesses position on the vaccination is clear, respectful and in line with current legislation. You may encourage vaccination, but you cannot threaten or intimidate employees regarding their personal decision.
It is imperative that business leaders continue on with the COVID Safe practices and measures in the workplace, such as social distancing, good hygiene, increased cleaning and ensuring employees are adhering to directions and procedures around being tested if they have any symptoms or come into close contact with someone who has COVID-19. Ensuring you are collecting visitor details for contact tracing, leading by example, and not allowing complacency to creep in are important measures for business leaders to demonstrate.
You can provide information on the vaccines as it comes to hand, and you can encourage employees to speak with their treating medical practitioner about any questions or concerns they have about the vaccine.
As we ride out the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine, we wait to see if the government do decide step in and mandate the jab. Until then we encourage you to start the conversation about the vaccine in your workplace today. In the meantime, stay safe!
As with anything related to COVID-19, vaccinations are an evolving area so f you would like any further information on whether you can direct employees to vaccinate, contact the HR Staff n’ Stuff team as we are always here to help!
The HR Staff n' Stuff team all contribute to our blogs. Enjoy the read!