What’s next for workplaces divided by controversial vaccine mandates?

Employers will need to manage the reintegration of workforces physically and psychologically split by the expiring vaccine mandates, according to an employment advocate.

Among sweeping changes announced this week, some of the Government’s vaccine mandates will be dissolved on April 4.

The private sector can still set its own policies and maintain any requirements for staff to be vaccinated based on role risk assessments, but a number of companies including Fonterra and Sealord have already dropped their workplace vaccine requirements in favour of daily Covid testing. 

Government mandates and private sector vaccine requirements have helped boost the country’s immunisation rate to 94 percent, but the measures have not been without controversy, as seen by the violent protests at Parliament.

Employment advocate Ashleigh Fechney has been at the coal face dealing with people who’ve chosen not to get the vaccine and have lost their job as a result.

She’s worked with about 35 people across the private and public sectors who’ve approached her for formal advice on vaccination policy disputes.

High stress on both sides

Despite the easing of the rules in many workplaces, Fechney says there’s still very much a divide between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated – with angst on both sides of the fence.

“Many unvaccinated employees are concerned about bullying and other unfair treatment, and many vaccinated employees are concerned about the risks of contracting Covid-19,” she says.

“I don’t think it’s relevant whether these feelings are justified, because we can’t dispute how someone feels. However, it does show that there are high levels of stress and anxiety, from both sides, as companies attempt to navigate how to manage Covid in the workplace.” 

Many unvaccinated people are concerned about receiving backlash from immunised colleagues, Fechney says, particularly since they are often very visible.

People who have been away from work due to their vaccination status are easily identified as choosing not to be vaccinated, and Fechney has heard many stories from unvaccinated employees about how they’ve been subjected to “backhanded and inappropriate comments” from their vaccinated peers.

“There have been vaccinated employees who’ve told their employers: ‘I will resign if I have to work with someone who isn’t vaccinated,”
– Employment advocate, Ashleigh Fechney

“There have been vaccinated employees who’ve told their employers: ‘I will resign if I have to work with someone who isn’t vaccinated,” she says. “This places the employer in a precarious position, because it then comes down to a relationship problem rather than a strict health and safety issue. It’s a ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ scenario.”

A 2021 study by consultants McKinsey found almost half of US workers surveyed were worried about going back to work after working from home, with the chief concerns being the risk of catching Covid-19 and also potentially passing it to unvaccinated or at-risk children and loved ones.

With stress levels running high, Fechney says it’s the company’s responsibility to manage workplace relationships so all staff feel healthy and safe in the workplace.

The majority of people she works with are willing to return to work and rebuild the relationship, she says.

“Many are understandably hurt, but recognise the conflicting position that employers have been placed in.”

Businesses still calling the shots

Russell McVeagh partner and employment lawyer Kylie Dunn says the lifting of mandates may not change much for those who’ve lost their job due to their vaccination status. 

“If an unvaccinated employee had their employment terminated, an employer doesn’t have to hire them back and [the worker] doesn’t have a right to return,” she says.

“So it may not change very much in that respect, it’s just saying there won’t be a mandate going forward. It won’t be undoing the work of the mandates that were in place previously, and up to April 4,” Dunn says.

Businesses could still require all workers to be vaccinated, too.

According to Employment NZ, employers can assess whether specific roles need to be performed by a vaccinated person, if a risk assessment deems this necessary.

Dunn says now is a prudent time for workplaces or employers to revisit their vaccination policies.

That’s not just because of the Government’s announcement, she says, but also because of the increased use of rapid antigen testing in the workplace.

It won’t be enough to solve the skills shortage, but Beyond Recruitment chief executive Liza Viz says lifting the mandate will bring some unvaccinated employees back into the workforce.

She’s come across people in a range of sectors with different skill levels, from professionals to construction workers, who haven’t been able to get work due to vaccine policies.

It’s a low percentage of job seekers, she says, but some of them are in the “highly skilled technology” area.

“We’ve got some unvaccinated people who we’ve not been able to help or support in their job search over the last number of months,” she says. “We’ll be really happy to be able to work with these people again.”

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