COVID-19 Vaccine & the Workplace
As the national rollout of COVID-19 vaccines takes place, it's important to understand what this means for Queensland businesses in order to keep our community safe and healthy. Under the Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws, employers have a duty to eliminate, or if that is not reasonably practicable, minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.
Meeting the requirements
- physical distancing,
- good hygiene
- regular cleaning and maintenance
- ensuring your workers do not attend work if they are unwell.
You must also comply with any public health orders made by the state and territory governments that apply to you and your workplace.
Do employers need to ensure employees are vaccinated?
Currently, there are no laws or public health orders that specifically require employees to ensure their employees vaccinated against coronavirus. Whilst the Australian Government aims to have as many Australians vaccinated as possible, getting the vaccine is voluntary.
There are, however, limited circumstances where an employer may require their employees to be vaccinated. Relevant factors an employer should consider will include:
- whether a specific law (such as a state or territory public health law) requires an employee to be vaccinated
- whether an enterprise agreement, other registered agreement or employment contract includes a provision about requiring vaccinations
- if no law, agreement or employment contract applies that requires vaccination, whether it would be lawful and reasonable for an employer to give their employees a direction to be vaccinated (which is assessed on a case by case basis).
When can employers direct their staff to get vaccinated?
Employers can direct their employees to be vaccinated if the direction is lawful and reasonable. Whether a direction is lawful and reasonable has to be assessed on a case by case basis. Some circumstances in which a direction may be more likely to be reasonable include where:
- employees interact with people with an elevated risk of being infected with coronavirus (for example, employees working in hotel quarantine or border control), or
- employees have close contact with people who are most vulnerable to the health impacts of coronavirus infection (for example, employees working in health care or aged care).
What can employers do if an employee refuses to be vaccinated?
If an employee refuses to be vaccinated (contrary to a specific law, agreement or contract that requires vaccination, or after receiving a clear and repeated lawful and reasonable direction), an employer should, as a first step, ask the employee to explain their reasons for refusing the vaccination.
In some cases, there are legitimate reasons (e.g. an existing medical condition) for an employee to refuse vaccination. The employer should then consider alternative working arrangements and other options during these circumstances.
However, if an employee has no legitimate reason to refuse vaccination, as an employer you may be able to take disciplinary action depending on the circumstances. Employers are encouraged to discuss options with their employees and consider getting legal advice to ensure they follow a fair disciplinary process.
Can employees refuse to come to work if a co-worker isn't vaccinated?
Assuming there is no public health order in place, it is unlikely that an employee could refuse to attend their workplace where a co-worker isn’t vaccinated against coronavirus, because:
- vaccination is not mandatory and most workplaces won’t be able to require their employees to be vaccinated
- the co-worker may have a legitimate reason not to be vaccinated (for example, a medical reason).
If an employee refuses to attend the workplace because a co-worker isn’t vaccinated, their employer can direct them to attend the workplace if the direction is lawful and reasonable. Employers should also consider sharing information about any steps they've taken to ensure a safe workplace to help manage employee concerns.
For more information on COVID-19 vaccination workplace requirements, head to the Fair Work Ombudsan website.