A Contentious COVID-19 Vaccine
Almost a year after Australia’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, the nation is well on its way to delivering a vaccine for the novel disease, with approval for the Pfizer vaccine drawing closer, following recommendations from the independent Advisory Committee on Vaccines. With the first doses likely to be rolled out by March 2021, IR Minister Christian Porter will shortly commence discussions with employers and unions about the difficult legal and workplace safety issues surrounding the roll out.
The question front and centre for many is: can and should my business make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for all staff (and potentially clients/customers)?
Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer… yet.
Employers currently have the power to direct employees to obtain specific vaccinations, for instance, the influenza vaccine, when the employees operate in “high risk” environments like health, child or aged care. Though, as a result of the pandemic’s latest developments, employers in a broad range of industries now face a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to giving health-related directions in the workplace.
Is a Direction to Vaccinate “Lawful and Reasonable”
Whether an employer chooses to mandate a COVID-19 vaccination for their employees will continue to depend on the unique circumstances of the case, and whether the direction can be deemed “lawful and reasonable”. A vaccination is a physically invasive procedure and hence, a direction for employees to receive the injection must be justifiable, with supporting evidence to show that the vaccination is inherent for the safe performance of an employee’s duties.
Given COVID-19’s high risk of infection and potentially dire outcome, it is likely that a wide range of industry employers will be successful in mandating the vaccine, claiming it as a necessary measure to minimise the risk of transmission in the workplace, consistent with WHS obligations under relevant Work, Health and Safety laws.
This will, however, be subject to genuine medical exemptions, where in such cases, reasonable alternatives may be provided to employees, where possible. As for political, religious or other objections, employers will need to consider the nature of the objection, whether there are any consequences in relation to discrimination laws, and navigate around these. At the end of the day, where there is a genuine work, health and safety reason for the direction, employers will be on strong ground to enforce such directions absent a legitimate basis for refusal.
The Fair Work Commission recently considered mandating vaccinations in Ms Nicole Maree Arnold v Goodstart Early Learning Limited T/A Goodstart Early Learning  FWC 6083 . Despite Deputy President Asbury ruling the application as being “out of time”, the Commission offered insight into the way other cases may be determined, commenting at paragraph  on the avenues made available by the Respondent for employees who had valid medical grounds for refusing vaccination. The Commission also highlighted the Respondent’s duty of care, observing at paragraph  that the mandatory vaccination is “lawful and reasonable” in the context of child-care.
Top Tip: If employees have legitimate, medical grounds to refuse vaccination directions, employers may, where possible, offer reasonable alternatives for workers falling within this category.
Just last week, the Commission touched on the same issue, considering the possibility of a mandated COVID-19 vaccine in Ms Maria Corazon Glover v Ozcare  FWC 231. In paragraph , Commissioner Hunt emphasised the importance of an employee’s specific role in determining whether a mandated vaccine is a lawful and reasonable direction. Commissioner Hunt also made clear that despite grounds for refusal being “medical or based on religious grounds” or otherwise, an employee may still face termination should the vaccination be regarded as an “inherent requirement of the role”.
And while it may be difficult to picture, it is entirely possible that employers far beyond the scope of health, child or aged care may require their workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, given the much more severe health and safety consequences associated with the disease. Commissioner Hunt, in her decision went so far as to consider it foreseeably reasonable that a shopping centre Santa employee be immunised as an inherent requirement of the job.
While it is likely that the courts will be tasked with ironing out the kinks in employer decisions as to lawful and reasonable vaccination directions, there are steps that can be taken in the meantime to prepare for the vaccine rollout in March.
Deciding Whether to Implement Directions
Employers who are deciding whether or not a vaccination mandate should be imposed should consider:
- The type of work being performed;
- Whether that work can be performed remotely;
- The specific situation of employees;
- The advice given by government and medical bodies applicable at the time; and
- Any other relevant circumstances.
Mandating the Vaccine
When implementing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, employers must place particular emphasis on:
- Maintaining communications – employees must be made aware of why they are required to get the vaccine and alternatives may need to be given to those who have legitimate grounds to refuse or who are unable to comply. Employees must have the chance to ask questions and have their concerns heard. As this is first and foremost a safety issue, consultation is key.
- Clear processes – if an employee conscientiously objects or is unable to comply with the directions, there should be procedures in place to determine available avenues moving forward.
- Flexibility – employees should be given a choice with regard to vaccine suppliers and administrators and a number of opportunities to receive the vaccination.
- Anticipating attitudes – employers must consider all potential circumstances and responses from their employees.
- Transparency – employers should lead by example and provide explanations for why the vaccination is required to uphold WHS obligations.