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Mandating COVID-19 vaccinations in the workplace

Please note: some of this content is time sensitive and may be subject to future updates and changes.

Read New HR challenges of a "vaccinated economy" >

On 13 August 2021, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) updated its information for employers on COVID-19 vaccinations: workplace rights & obligations with new guidance on mandating COVID-19 workforce vaccinations.

“Employers can direct their employees to be vaccinated if the direction is lawful and reasonable. Whether a direction is lawful and reasonable will be fact dependent and needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.” - FWO

For a vaccination direction to be lawful, it needs to comply with any employment contract, award or agreement, and any Commonwealth, state or territory law or public health order that applies.

State and territory governments have made and may continue to make public health orders requiring workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in their state or territory. Learn more >

Employers and workers must comply with any public health orders that apply to them.

When undertaking a case-by-case assessment on whether you can reasonably mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for your workforce, the FWO advises that there are a range of relevant factors to consider.

The FWO has also now created four broad tier levels to help guide employers on assessing the risk level of their working environments, as a gauge of whether it may be “more reasonable” or “less reasonable” to direct employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Relevant factors to consider:

  • the nature of each workplace (e.g., taking into consideration public facing roles, the provision of essential services, options for social distancing, etc.)

  • the extent of community transmission of COVID-19 in the location where the direction is to be given

  • the effectiveness of vaccines in reducing the risk of transmission or serious illness

  • work health and safety obligations

  • each employee’s circumstances, including their duties and the risks associated with their work

  • whether employees have a legitimate reason for not being vaccinated (e.g., a medical reason)

  • vaccine availability

4 broad work tiers:

  • Tier 1 work, where employees are required as part of their duties to interact with people with an increased risk of being infected with coronavirus (e.g., hotel quarantine or border control).

  • Tier 2 work, where employees are required to have close contact with people who are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of coronavirus (e.g., health care or aged care).

  • Tier 3 work, where there is interaction or likely interaction between employees and other people such as customers, other employees or the public in the normal course of employment (e.g., workplaces providing essential goods and services).

  • Tier 4 work, where employees have minimal face-to-face interaction as part of their normal employment duties (e.g., working from home).

It is important to note that a workplace may have a mix of employees performing work in different tiers. This needs to be considered during your self-assessment.

It is more likely to be reasonable for healthcare, aged care and disability care providers to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for their client-facing or on-site workers. Health care, aged care and disability care all fall under the category of Tier 2 work. This is because of the increased risk of employees being infected with COVID-19, or giving COVID-19 to a person who is particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of coronavirus.

From 17 September 2021, COVID-19 vaccination became mandatory for residential aged care workers (public and private) Read more >

Allied health services can take place in a variety of workplace settings which may fall under the category of Tier 2 or 3 work. Private practice owners and independent contractors need to consider their working environments and assess whether a vaccination mandate is reasonable. Allied health practitioners who are employees will need to comply with any lawful and reasonable directions by their employers.

Community services and not-for-profit organisations also conduct work in a variety of workplace settings which may fall under the category of Tier 2, 3 or 4 work.

For employees performing Tier 3 work, a direction to employees to receive a vaccination is more likely to be reasonable where community transmission of COVID-19 is occurring in an area, and an employer is operating a workplace in that area that needs to remain open despite a lockdown.

An employer’s direction to employees performing Tier 4 work is unlikely to be reasonable, given the limited risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Each employer should carefully consider the relevant factors and implications and seek tailored HR/legal advice if they are considering making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory in their workplace. Employers also need to provide regular and clear communications to their employees, listen carefully to any staff concerns, and know your legal rights and obligations.

“Regardless of the tier or tiers which may apply to work performed by employees, the question of whether a direction is reasonable will always be fact dependent and needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. This will require taking into account all relevant factors applicable to the workplace, the employees and the nature of the work that they perform. Employers should get their own legal advice if they’re considering making coronavirus vaccinations mandatory in their workplace.” - FWO

It is important to keep checking the FWO website for the most updated employment advice regarding COVID-19.

Mandating COVID-19 vaccinations in your workplace brings a range of HR considerations including workplace policies, recruitment and onboarding, employment agreements, recording-keeping and privacy, and communication and consultation with key stakeholders including staff, which may include managing refusals and providing additional information and support.

Read more:

More and more Australian organisations across a range of sectors are now choosing to implement mandatory COVID-19 vaccination a new condition of employment (and/or on-site attendance). While this trend is growing, the decision remains a complex matter for employers and business owners.

It is always advisable to seek tailored HR/IR advice before implementing any significant workplace change such as mandatory vaccination.

WorkPlacePLUS can help you navigate the new territory of mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations in your workplace. For more information or tailored advice, please contact us today.