COVID-19 Vaccinations and the Workplace

The first COVID-19 vaccination in Australia rolled out on 21 February 2021 preceded by a wave of protests. With the rollout, comes a thorny question for employers about individual rights, workplace health and safety, and vaccination enforcement.

The rollout, managed in phases, is expected to complete by the end of 2021 (you can check your eligibility here). While the Australian Government's COVID-19 vaccination policy states that vaccination "is not mandatory and individuals may choose not to vaccinate", this does not mean that there will not be punitive initiatives for those failing to vaccinate including proof of vaccination to move across borders.  Australia for example, already has a precedent with "No Jab, No Play" policies in place to access child care payments (the ability to object to vaccination on non-medical grounds was removed from 1 January 2016).

There are currently no laws or public health orders in Australia that specifically enable employers to require their employees to be vaccinated against coronavirus. However, it is likely that in some circumstances an employer may require an employee to be vaccinated.

Can an employer require an employee to be vaccinated?

For most employers, probably not. The Fair Work Ombudsman, however, states that there are "limited circumstances where an employer may require their employees to be vaccinated." These are:

  • The State or Territory Government enacts a public health order requiring the vaccination of workers (for example, in identified high-risk workplaces or industries).
  • An agreement or contract requires it - some employment agreements already require employees to be vaccinated and where these clauses exist, they will need to be reviewed to determine if they also apply to the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • A lawful and reasonable direction – employers are able to issue a direction for employees to be vaccinated but whether that direction is lawful and reasonable will be assessed on a case by case basis. It's more likely a direction will be "reasonable" where, for example, there is an elevated risk such as border control and quarantine facilities, or where employees have contact with vulnerable people such as those working in health care or aged care.

If an employee refuses to be vaccinated on non-medical grounds in a workplace that requires it, standard protocols apply. That is, the employer will need to follow through with disciplinary action - there are no special provisions that enable suspensions or stand downs for employees who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Can an employer require evidence of vaccination?

In general, an employer can only require evidence of vaccination if they have a lawful and reasonable reason to do so. Requesting access to medical records and storing data of an individual's medical information will also have privacy implications (see the Office of the Information Commissioner for more details).

Your immunisation history is already accessible through your myGov account when it is linked to Medicare. The Express Plus Medicare app enables you to access this information on your phone.

More details are expected shortly on Australia's "vaccine passport" that will enable the quick identification of an individual's vaccination status. Israel's "Green Pass" for example uses a simple QR code but there are already concerns that it is easily forged.

Can we require customers to be vaccinated?

Some high risk industries are likely to require customers to be vaccinated or where they cannot be vaccinated, subject to heightened measures such as quarantine and/or testing. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce recently told A Current Affair, "We are looking at changing our terms and conditions to say, for international travellers, that we will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft." Qantas is expected to release its position middle-to-end 2021 on domestic and international travel.

For employers in high risk industries, it's important to maintain a conversation with employees and consult an industrial relations specialist if your workplace intends to require vaccinations for employees and/or customers.


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