The Australian COVID vaccination program begins on Monday, 22 February, after the first 142,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived in the country last week.
Aged care and disability care residents and workers, frontline healthcare workers, and quarantine and border workers will be the first people in the country to get the jab.
As a guiding principle, both the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) and Safe Work Australia (SWA) have stressed that the overwhelming majority of employers should assume they will not be able to require their employees to be vaccinated.
Similarly, they said it is unlikely in the majority of circumstances that employees could refuse to come to work because, for instance, a colleague had not been vaccinated.
Regardless, both the FWO and SWA advised employers to be aware of any public health orders that may have been issued by relevant state and territory government health agencies that could require certain workers to be vaccinated in some high-risk industries.
“The latest guidance provided by the FWO and SWA reinforces the federal government’s broader vaccine policy that vaccination should be voluntary,” said Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations Christian Porter.
“As the Prime Minister has said many times, the government expects that the overwhelming majority of Australians will want to be vaccinated to protect themselves and their loved ones, and so they can get on with their lives without disruption.”
HR professionals talk about their approach
Speaking about how they will handle the communications regarding the rollout with employees in their workplace, Skillsoft’s senior manager of human resources – APAC, Katie Amin, said businesses have to balance the rights and wishes of their employees with ensuring a safe workplace for all employees.
She said businesses may want to consider alternatives to vaccine mandates, such as a robust education campaign, enhanced paid time off for the vaccination, and company leaders taking the vaccine first to demonstrate safety of the vaccine.
“Employees need to understand the reasons of why you’re asking them to get a vaccine and what the alternatives are if they refuse,” Ms Amin said.
“It is important to put processes in place so that if an employee does refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, they understand what action will be taken and how their decision might impact their role.
“Ensure your team knows what these processes are by providing them with engaging health and safety training so they understand the potential risks of COVID-19 and the measures they need to comply with to protect them and their colleagues.”
Ms Amin also said it is important to respect every individual and make decisions on a case-by-case basis, and that if an employee isn’t comfortable coming back to the office, for example, it is important that employers can be flexible and adaptable to allow them to continue to work from home.
“This vaccine isn’t going to be mandated by government, so it’s going to be difficult for employers to insist that every employee have it,” she said.
“Safe Work will no doubt provide guidance to employers once the vaccine is ready to be rolled out, but employers and HR professionals should seek legal advice if they have any specific issues or need to understand what their rights and responsibilities are.”
Meanwhile, Mantel Group’s head of people and culture, Caroline Henshaw, said the vaccine will pose legal and ethical questions, particularly for those industries in the frontline of managing COVID such as healthcare, hotel quarantine and aged care workers.
“There may be tension in workplaces between employees who don’t feel comfortable in the workplace until a vaccination is in place, particularly those who are at risk of significant health implications if they were to get COVID and those employees who for health reasons cannot get the vaccine, and finally, those who do not want to have the vaccine,” she said.
Ms Henshaw said Mantel Group has already changed the longer-term way it approaches office working, having introduced hubs and a blend of remote and collaborative working.
She said this enables them to provide team members with options and an ability to work remotely and attend offices when they are comfortable.
“We do have the added challenge that often our employees work at client sites, across different industries and which may have different office presence and vaccination requirements (for example, a client in aged care may have a requirement for all employees to be vaccinated in which case we would need to ensure we comply),” Ms Henshaw said.
“Open communication with clients and employees, and clear sharing of facts (not opinions) about vaccines will be our approach.
“Our team generally love working with each other and really miss coming together in person in the office, so the vaccines are hopefully a way for them to fast-track this.”