While those working in public-facing work environments, such as stores providing essential goods and services (Tier 3), and employees who have minimal face-to-face interaction with members of the public (Tier 4), are least likely to face mandatory workplace jabs.
“It’s better than no guidance at all but still doesn’t give employers the level of insight they need to be assured they are making decisions Fair Work will ultimately regard as reasonable,” Karen Gately, an HR specialist and founder of Corporate Dojo, told Inside Retail.
“There is still the potential for employers’ decisions to be challenged which will lead to them having to invest time, energy and money to defend the policies they implement.”
The FWO recommendation has come too late for some, however. Earlier this month, packaged fruit manufacturer SPC became the first Australian company to introduce a vaccine mandate, announcing that full vaccination will become mandatory for staff and contractors to gain entry to any of the company’s locations by the end of November.
In the US, a whole host of companies are requiring workers to get vaccinated including Walmart, Walgreens, Tyson Foods and Doordash.
How to handle vaccine mandates in retail: HR experts weigh in Vaccine mandates in the workplace
While those in the retail sector are frequently impacted by lockdown closures and eager to reopen safely, Gately believes clearer guidelines on the issue of vaccine mandates are needed from the government.
“At this point in time, it’s up to business leaders to make those calls. Fair Work Australia has said ‘employers can direct their employees to be vaccinated if the direction is lawful and reasonable.’ The challenge for most employers is that whether a direction is lawful and reasonable is assessed on a case by case basis,” she said.
For a direction to be lawful, employers must be able demonstrate that they are complying with relevant contracts, awards and agreements as well as Commonwealth, state or territory laws, Gately explained, pointing to anti-discrimination laws as well as work health and safety laws.
“There is plenty of room to argue that staff in the retail sector are likely to come in contact with a lot more people than those for example working in an office environment. Therefore the risk of them getting Covid is higher,” she said.
“It is also reasonable to argue that there is far more likelihood of a retail setting being an exposure site, than again an office or other worksite closed to the public.”
Gately said that while employers may have empathy for people who are concerned about the personal risks associated with getting vaccinated, “in most circumstances it’s impractical to place that empathy higher up the list of priorities than taking steps to protect teams and communities”. However, she recommends contacting Safe Work Australia for further insight to reach a decision that is appropriate for each business.
Managing resistance to mandate
Kris Grant, chief executive at management consultancy ASPL Group, said that employers and HR teams will need to think carefully about what their response will be when an employee, inevitably, refuses to get the shot.
“There’s a real fear in Australia around the vaccine and there are a lot of ‘anti-vaxxers’ out there. How are you going to respond to that? What happens when someone says no? HR needs to be prepared for it,” she said.
“I don’t believe, from a legal perspective, you can do that much about it.”
Grant also believes privacy and bullying will be major challenges for those that choose to introduce vaccine mandates.
“I am sure there will be employees that may not want to share their vaccination status, that may be due to a health reason, there could be endless reasons someone would choose not to vaccinate,” she said.
“It is a privacy issue. If employers go ahead with [a vaccine mandate] they have to think about where they are going to store that data and what they’re going to do with it.”
Grant recommends, as with any new policy, getting feedback from the team first before taking action.
“Just be as open and transparent as you can,” she said.
“It’s really important to build trust through any sort of crisis and complex decision. Communication is the absolute key here and having transparency around the decision making.”
Incentives to get vaccinated
The approach for many employers in Australia, at least for now, is to encourage vaccination rather than push it on workers.
On Monday, telecommunications company Telstra announced that while it’s not mandating vaccines, it will reward each fully vaccinated employee with $200 worth of ‘appreciation points’ which can be redeemed as gift vouchers for a range of products from groceries to fashion and electronics. With over 28,000 employees under its remit, the plan could cost Telstra in the region of $5.6 million.
According to CNBC, businesses across Asia are doubling down on incentives to tackle vaccine hesitancy and mistrust in governments. In India, fast food chain McDonald’s is offering a 20 per cent discount to vaccinated customers, while in Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific Airways is giving away 20 million Asia Air miles in a prize draw, with one winner permitted to hold a private party on board the airline’s new Airbus A321neo aircraft.
Gately, however, is not convinced that incentives like these will be successful in converting those who are against getting the vaccine.
“I’m unsure if incentives will have a significant impact on shifting the perspectives of people who don’t want to get vaccinated because they are fearful of health consequences from rapidly developed vaccines, or believe in ulterior motives of the government,” she said.
“People who are willing to get vaccinated will get it done as soon as they believe there is a safe option. I’d be more inclined to focus on debunking concerns around AstraZeneca or getting enough doses of alternatives to go around.”
Vaccine passports in retail
Many countries in Europe and around the world are considering the introduction of vaccine ‘passports’ in hospitality and some retail settings as part of efforts to get cities up and running again.
France passed a law last month requiring everyone over the age of 12 to show a health pass to prove they are either fully vaccinated, recently tested negative or recently recovered from the virus in order to enter public venues such as restaurants, cafes and shopping centres.
And in Indonesia’s capital city of Jakarta, shopping malls reopened last week exclusively to vaccinated shoppers.
Again, Gately and Grant agree that this ruling must come from higher up.
“If they are mandated by government and therefore consistently applied they can work, but if it’s left to each retailer to decide for themselves that could become a significant competitive issue,” Gately said.
“In other words consumers are likely to make decisions on who to shop with depending on the particular retailer’s policy.”
Retailers like Woolworths, Coles and Bunnings have already come out to show their support for the vaccination rollout, encouraging customers to get the jab and in some cases, even offering up their sites as vaccination hubs, however they have stopped short of mandating vaccines for team members.