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To jab or not to jab: Where do you stand in the modern workplace debate?

Mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations albeit not a new conversation, are all over social media and the news again, and depending on what camp you sit in will depend how you may be swayed.

This article is certainly not meant to sway or be controversial, but to state a few research based facts to arm you and your workplace with the best tools of them all - knowledge! After all isn't the aim to keep workplaces and employees safe and healthy as possible, while we all emerge from this pandemic.

Lets start with the statistics. As of the 15th September 2021, more than two thirds of Australians aged over 16 have received their first vaccine, while 34.9% of the Australian population over 16 are fully vaccinated. (source: our world in data) And yes compared globally Australia is pretty much on the bottom tier for vaccination rates.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has said ''in line with the National Covid Shield Campaign workplace vaccines are stage three of the campaign''. Health Minister Greg Hunt was also quoted in saying about the campaign ''This program will make it even easier for people to get vaccinated, while recognising the eagerness of businesses to help. It will allow Australia to further increase the overall size of the Covid-19 vaccination workforce and to use many offers of assistance from vaccination administrators and Australia's business community''.

These increases in workplace rollouts come as the government encourages businesses to mandate employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Vaccine mandates of course aren't new, although for the average lower risk employee they were something 'frontline workers' were doing, and others just talked about. Now with the shift to general employees and organisations, and the news that mandating vaccinations within the workplace is here to stay, emotions, protests and opinions are running high.

In an August 2021 Prime Minister media release, the federal government said that in the absence of specific health orders it is up to individual businesses to decide what is right for them, and if a vaccine mandate is appropriate.

Apart from aged care, the federal government has said that vaccine mandates are not for the government to impose, although not everyone agrees with this statement, as per this interesting article around the french style mandate.

Legally a great resource for employers to keep up to date on rights and obligations and whether a vaccine mandate is legal or not is this FairWork Ombudsman page on this very topic.

Another great resource is the World Health Organisation (WHO). According to the WHO if vaccine mandates are introduced within the workplace, it is critical they are introduced ethically, as per their guidance article.

In the wake of these revelations, can we learn from what other organisations in Australia are doing?

In the news most recently there have been two large organisations outside of the aged and health care industries who have mandated vaccines for their employees - both with very different approaches:

Case 1: Qantas Airlines Collaborative Approach

  • Qantas mandated vaccination program includes all frontline staff including pilots, cabin crew and airport workers.

  • All mandated staff will need to be fully vaccinated by November 15 2021, and the rest of the workforce by March 31, 2022.

  • All mandated staff will receive paid vaccination leave and up to two days sick leave to recover if required.

  • Staff who have documented medical reasons will be exempt from the Qantas mandate.

  • At least three quarters of the Qantas workforce supported a mandate in a recent workers survey.

  • Nearly 90% of Qantas staff are already partially vaccinated against Covid-19.

Case 2: SPC Directive Approach

  • SPC mandated vaccination program includes all 450 onsite workers at the Shepparton factory.

  • All mandated staff have until November 2021 to be fully vaccinated.

  • Employees risk being barred from onsite work if unvaccinated.

  • All onsite workers will receive paid vaccination leave and up to two days of special leave to recover.

  • Workers with genuine medical grounds precluding them from receiving the covid vaccination will be treated with the ''utmost compassion''.

  • The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) have concerns and say SPC did not consult with workers and the union appropriately before the announcement.

Of all the issues these cases raise, three stand out as being directly relevant to all workplaces; necessity, consultation and trust. In other words is a vaccine mandate a necessary, reasonable and proportionate response to a public health problem for your individual organisation? This is certainly not an easy or one-off decision, because as we are all aware the Covid landscape and its impact on Australian workplaces is forever changing.

So how can employers approach the issue, while fostering mutual trust between them, their employees and public health agencies?

  1. Promoting Choice

If it is suitable and appropriate for your individual organisational circumstances, offer alternatives before heading down the path of a vaccination mandate.

  • Make getting the vaccine easy, with no hurdles: Things to consider could be, making the vaccine available within the workplace or arranging appointments for any staff who would like assistance, especially those employees who don't navigate the online world easily. The government also has some face to face help available in booking appointments across all states.

  • Ensure there are no financial implications in receiving the vaccine: Ensuring all staff including casuals are given paid time off to receive the vaccine, as well as sick leave if they are feeling unwell following it.

  • If staff are anxious, facilitate access to reliable information and opportunities to ask questions: Anxious employees often just need reliable researched information, not opinions, and an opportunity to ask questions. This is not just a case of providing a website address or brochures, if applicable provide access to health workers for an on-site information session, or something similar.

  • Offer alternatives: Where appropriate if a mandate is being seriously considered, consider whether it is possible to achieve the same outcomes of reduced infection within the workplace by offering those not wanting the vaccine things like, alternative work arrangements and regular Covid testing.

2. Make it Fair and Ethical

During this uncertain time, it is critical employers are fostering trust in their employees, making decisions in a fair and just way promotes legitimacy and ensures everyone feels included and supported. The perfect decision-making model would be fully transparent, relevant, revisable and enforceable.

For a fair and just decision-making process, some areas for employers to consider might include:

  • Involving stakeholders: Be clear in your communications and include plenty of consultation. If a mandate is the way forward for your individual organisation, ensure there is a strong and clear justification. Include staff to develop communication brochures etc and if appropriate include unions in discussions.

  • Be clear about the justification: Ensure the vaccine will reduce transmission in the workplace and you have legislative support around your justification. FairWork Australia has some great resources around this.

  • Plan and support: Have a clear communicated plan to support implementation, for example systems for documenting and retrieving vaccination evidence.

  • Exemptions: Make sure exemptions for those with a valid medical reason are clearly communicated and that group of staff are not disadvantaged.

In conclusion and in unprecedented times, the bottom line is everyone should feel supported in their health decisions and they should feel respected by their employers with empathy and understanding.

If you or your organisation is considering a vaccine mandate or you just want to know more before making any decisions, the facts point to;

  1. Ensuring you are informed with research based facts.

  2. If unsure, reach out to the experts before putting anything in place.

Below are some useful resources for employers and employees alike:

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