New Government plans to ease border restrictions rely on widespread vaccination – so the business sector is using employment policies to fight hesitancy and bump up rates

Employers are being warned to remain vigilant against Covid vaccination misinformation in the workplace as the national vaccine programme ramps up.

Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope said one of the key messages to come out of this week’s report by the Government’s public health advisory group led by Sir David Skegg was the crucial role of vaccination in easing border restrictions.

“We’ve all got a role to play in the vaccination rollout and the more people get vaccinated the more options we have. Vaccination is important whether we keep the borders closed or open because it builds community immunity,” Hope said. 

All eyes are on the Employment Relations Authority, which is hearing the precedent-setting case of a border worker disputing their dismissal because she refused to get vaccinated under the public health order.

It’s expected more cases will follow, as businesses and employees work out where to draw the lines in encouraging or mandating vaccination, and in combating the spread of misinformation in company break rooms.

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Business NZ is working with the Ministry of Health to have Covid vaccination information widely available in workplaces to combat misinformation.

Vaccine hesitancy and misinformation has been a growing concern for the Government, with Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins recently saying this was going to become a bigger issue as the rollout progressed.

“As we get into the latter part of the year where all those who are eager to be vaccinated have come forward and been vaccinated, the misinformation is really going to have an impact on us reaching those higher levels that we really need to get to.”

Dundas Street Employment Law partner Ros Webby said spreading misinformation in the workplace could potentially result in dismissal if the employee repeatedly did this despite fair and reasonable warnings from the employer.

She said people who refused to get vaccinated working in roles under the public health order could lose their jobs but imposing vaccination mandates was harder to justify for jobs and industries not covered by the order.

Webby said companies would have to consult staff and justify there was a health and safety requirement for staff to be vaccinated if they wanted to impose a vaccination policy.

That was because the Bill of Rights protected New Zealanders from being forced to undergo any medical treatment, which included vaccinations. 

If it were established that vaccination was a requirement, workers who refused to get vaccinated would need to be redeployed, but Webby said if there were no alternatives available, the worker could also be dismissed – only after a fair and reasonable process. 

Bell Gully partner Liz Coats said employment disputes regarding vaccination policies would likely grow as the vaccination rollout progressed.

She said as most New Zealanders had been working without being vaccinated for more than a year, it would be difficult to justify staff get vaccinated if they had the option of working from home. However, advice could change if there were a sudden community outbreak of the Delta variant.

Bell Gully partner Liz Coats says employment disputes regarding vaccination policies will become more popular as the vaccination rollout progresses. Photo: Supplied

Coats said the wider ramifications of the Employment Relations Authority case were yet to be seen, but it would be significant for the rights of workers covered by the public health order. 

“I expect other cases to come through, potentially complaints being made to the Privacy Commissioner, there may well be human rights claims in relation to people who feel they have been discriminated against for not getting vaccinated because of religious or political beliefs.”

About 1.3 million people had received one dose of the Pfizer vaccine and about 820,000 had been fully vaccinated by the second week of August.

Vaccinologist Helen Petousis-Harris said it was difficult to put a number on the rate of inoculation required for herd immunity, because the goal posts kept changing with new variants’ transmissibility, and also depended on factors such as contact tracing and hygiene. But she said we must “set ourselves a very high bar”.

Petousis-Harris said private companies could play an important role in driving up vaccination rates in the community, simply by supporting staff and their families to get vaccinated.

The Ministry of Health was giving employers with more than 1000 staff the opportunity to host vaccinations on site and Fonterra and Mainfreight had also signalled interest to be a part of that.

Petousis-Harris said businesses, particularly larger employers, had a duty to their community to support vaccinations and education.

“For three reasons. Sick workers cost money, they want to encourage best practice health and safety, and the other is community responsibility.”

Webby said there was no reason why an employer could not have a policy or practice that encouraged vaccinations that incentivised staff. 

But that was just as long as the policy did not include threats or promises of bad things happening to those who chose not to get vaccinated.

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