Vaccination is the best public health defence we have against COVID-19. It also contributes to employment security and economic prosperity by reducing the risk of lockdowns. However, workplace vaccination is a thorny topic that requires employers to balance workplace safety duties and complying with privacy laws. As we have seen both in Australia and internationally, the topic can sometimes elicit strong feelings and seemingly irrational behaviour. Because of this, we need to tread carefully.
COSBOA’s position is that small business employers should strongly encourage but not force their staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. We are also advocating for greater clarity from the Government in the form of a national, consistent policy on mandatory vaccination.
In the meantime, the two words we need to keep in mind are reasonable and legal. Under the Model Work Health and Safety laws, employers have a duty to “eliminate the risk of exposure to COVID-19 if reasonably practicable” or if not reasonably practicable “minimise that risk, as far as reasonably practicable.” In the absence of public health orders – which apply to very few industries and vary between jurisdictions – it is not legal to require employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, or even to require them to disclose their vaccination status.
COSBOA recommends that small business employers do the following:
Strongly encourage employees to receive a vaccine
Provide paid personal/ carer’s leave for employees to receive a vaccine, including for employees who aren’t normally entitled to it
Provide paid personal/ carer’s leave in case of an adverse reaction to a vaccine.
We believe that if small business employers take the above actions, then they are doing all that is ‘reasonably practicable’ to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in their workplace.
We recommend that all communication about vaccination include the following:
The reasons that the business is strongly encouraging vaccination
If the employer is offering affordable and meaningful incentives for staff to get vaccinated
A clear statement that employees are not being forced to receive a vaccine
Links to credible sources on the benefits of vaccination, as well as resources that dispel some of the common myths about vaccination that are circulating in the community.
Clear communication with staff is extremely important. As most small business owners aren’t experts on this issue – nor should they have to be – expecting them to be able to communicate all of the scientific facts about vaccination is unrealistic. Small business owners can, however, play a very effective role in disseminating credible sources of information written by the experts. This is why we recommend that small business employers share resources such as the Department of Health’s ‘Why should I get vaccinated for COVID-19?’ and ‘COVID-19 vaccines – is it true?’ pages. The Department of Health has also translated these pages into 63 languages.
The actions above are the best small business owners can do with the information and guidance that is currently available. COSBOA is advocating for clarity from the Government in the form of a nationally consistent policy on mandatory vaccination.
In choosing not to issue public health orders for the majority of industries, the Government is placing an unfair amount of responsibility and pressure on small business owners to keep their workplaces and communities safe. Small business owners, especially those in sectors that have to face the public every day, are acutely aware of the health and economic risks of COVID-19. The stakes are very high – the potential consequences of someone not being vaccinated include lockdowns, business collapse, financial hardship, as well as serious illness and death. It’s an incredibly stressful thought for a small business owner.
At the same time, small business people are understandably concerned about maintaining good relationships with their staff and their customers. At a small business, it’s the owner, not a faceless HR department, who has to tell their employees – people they see every day – that they think they should get a vaccine. The strong feelings and beliefs that people hold about vaccination make such a conversation daunting from a relationship management point of view – what do you do if one of your key staff members believes in a conspiracy? What do you do if your staff get in a fight about it?