COVID-19 vaccinations could lead to divided workplaces

Australia could follow the US in seeing unvaxed workers barred from the office

COVID-19 vaccinations could lead to divided workplaces

An employment lawyer believes Australian workplaces could follow in the footsteps of the US in barring employees from returning to the office unless they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Last week, Morgan Stanley issued a new policy requiring all workers to be vaccinated if they want to return to the company’s New York office. The country’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission confirmed employers can make such a direction, but they must accommodate for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical, disability or religious reasons.

While the US is far ahead of Australia in its vaccine rollout, it paints a picture of the type of incentive that could be on the cards for employees here. Experts have already been calling for greater incentives to boost the uptake of vaccinations, such as being exempt from travel restrictions in the event of a lockdown.

Speaking to HRD, Rob Jackson, Workplace Relations Partner at Rigby Cooke Lawyers, said once the vaccination is readily available to all age groups, requesting that unvaccinated employees work remotely could become a reality.

“I can see employers saying that as part of their health and safety duty, once there is no issue with supply, that to create a safe workplace they need people to be vaccinated and if they don't, then no they can’t come in,” he said. “Particularly if outbreaks become more persistent and the strains become all the more clever and devious themselves.”

Read more: Sydney suburbs in lockdown as Bondi’s COVID cluster grows

The Delta strain involved in the current outbreak is an example of an extremely contagious variant of the virus which has led to over 120 infections and now, a two-week Sydney-wide lockdown. One of the seeding events involved a hairdresser, who while unknowingly infectious, spread the disease to several colleagues and clients. Another workplace outbreak in the inner-west at a food delivery service has led to at least 11 new cases.

Australia’s troublesome vaccine rollout has been blamed for the latest outbreak, which is believed to have originated from an unvaccinated limousine driver who was transporting international flight crew. NSW police are still investigating whether the driver broke a public health order after claims he hadn’t participated in the daily saliva testing regime, but it appears there is not enough evidence to take legal action.

Regardless, the vast spread of the Delta variant has underlined the importance of being vaccinated. As of June 22, 6,860,276 vaccine doses had been administered in Australia. It equates to just 2.8% of the population who have been fully vaccinated, with 23.9% having received their first dose. Globally, Australia ranks 37th in the number of doses administered, falling way behind countries in Asia, Europe and South America.

Jackson said with other countries far more advanced in the rollout process, places like the US and the UK will lead the way in dealing with legal questions around how far employers can go to encourage staff to be vaccinated.

The next steps for employers in Australia

While there is still considerable grey area, there are steps employers can take to get a better idea of how they should approach the issue of vaccinations. Jackson said initially, it’s about going back to the fundamentals of workplace health and safety.

“First, I’d suggest HR leaders find out what's happening in their particular industry and get a sense of where the weaknesses or the risks have arisen to establish whether it's a low risk or high risk industry,” he said. “From there, they look at their workplace needs, and of their employees.”

Read more: Masks mandatory in workplaces as Sydney COVID-19 cluster balloons

Jackson acknowledged that some workplaces require more creativity and teamwork for things like problem solving or collaboration, and that may be a strong reason to bring people back into the office. But workplaces need to ensure they have all of the correct safety mechanisms in place like QR codes, good hygiene practices, and social distancing.

He said HR leaders also need to think laterally as well as literally when it comes to enforcing rules. Employees are likely to vary across the spectrum of concern about returning to the office. Some will undoubtedly be lax about following the rules, while others may feel too afraid to use public transport and return to the office at all.

Without federal or state intervention, it will be up to employers as to how they manage risk and maintain a safe working environment during the return-to-work process.

“Look at industry risks, look at specific business risks and try and do it with hearts in mind,” Jackson said. “You want your employees to broadly agree with you so make sure you carry out consultation, don’t rush the process, and always explain the issues fully.”

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