NZ border workers fired after refusing COVID vaccine

The issue was not a matter of redundancy, Customs explained

NZ border workers fired after refusing COVID vaccine

Nine Customs workers have been terminated after they opted out of the COVID immunisation drive for staff. The management clarified they were unable to find new assignments for the unvaccinated employees at the maritime border. Redeployment is an important part of the agency’s response to workers who decline the vaccine.

However, “options for redeployment were very limited due to no other Customs functions existing in the area,” said Jacinda Funnell, deputy chief executive for people and capability for Customs. The agency had been consulting with people about possible new assignments since early March, she said.

Read more: ‘Get vaccine or be redeployed’, PM tells staff

“Senior managers have travelled to all of these ports to talk to staff. We have run many, many sessions online and in person with staff; they’ve had opportunities to talk to their managers,” Funnell said.

In the case of the terminated workers, the issue was a matter of redeployment – not redundancy. Other staff members who also refused the vaccine have moved on to other assignments. “We’ve been able to redeploy most of the people who haven’t been vaccinated,” Funnell said. “There was just a very small number who we simply weren’t able to find redeployment options within Customs for. We did attempt to work with them to find them roles in other organisations,” she said.

New Zealand’s COVID-19 Public Health Response Act mandates frontline workers, such as those manning the borders, be inoculated. “From 1 May 2021, some work at the border can only be done by vaccinated workers,” Employment New Zealand writes in its guidance. “Employment law continues to apply to employees doing work covered by the Order, even if they are not vaccinated. This includes good faith requirements for any conversations about changing work arrangements / duties, taking leave, or restructuring work.”

Read more: Vaccinations: Will you monitor staff jabs?

Speaking out for the affected workers, employment law advocate Ashleigh Fechney criticised Customs’ decision. “If you’re going to terminate, at least do it in a redundancy setting,” Fechney said, calling on the agency to give the workers separation pay. “They gave up their own health and safety to protect the borders.”

Customs, however, declined the workers’ request for redundancy pay because the jobs they held hadn’t been dissolved; they simply required staff members who were vaccinated against the coronavirus. “The roles are ongoing and we will recruit into them,” the management said.

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