Can my employer make me get a COVID-19 vaccine?

by Sonia Elks and Jack Graham | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 15 October 2021 08:30 GMT

A health worker prepares a syringe with the Moderna coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at a vaccination center in Le Cannet, France, January 19, 2021. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

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Some companies and governments are pushing their staff to get vaccinated. But lawyers say forcing employees to get a COVID jab could be risky

By Sonia Elks and Jack Graham

Oct 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - COVID-19 health passes became mandatory for all workers in Italy from Friday, with the measure being applied mostly peacefully across the country despite some scattered protests.

Under the new rules, effective until year-end, those without the certificate will be suspended without pay and face a fine of up to 1,500 euros ($1,730) if they try to work on regardless.

Italy is among a swathe of countries imposing increasingly tough rules aimed at pushing people to get jabbed as vaccine take-up slows in many countries.

Some are offering incentives instead, as the world works out how best to keep economies flowing and staff safe.

In France, about 3,000 health workers have been suspended from work after failing to abide by rules requiring all people in the sector to get vaccinated.

Greece and Hungary have also made vaccines compulsory for healthcare employees, while Moscow has said all its public-facing workers, from teachers to hairdressers, must get jabbed.

Unvaccinated Americans could soon be out of work.

U.S. President Joe Biden has announced rules requiring all federal employees to get vaccinated, and for large companies to ensure staff are jabbed or tested weekly for coronavirus. The measures will cover about two-thirds of workers nationwide.

Some companies are imposing rules that go beyond national regimes.

A British plumbing firm plans a 'no jab, no job' rule covering new hires while Canada's big five banks have ordered staff to work from home if they are not vaccinated.

Other employers are using incentives to encourage action.

Dollar General Corp, Instacart and Trader Joe's in the United States are paying frontline employees to get inoculated.

Global consulting firm Accenture Plc and information technology giant Infosys Ltd will cover the cost of jabs for employees and family members in India, while several Indian companies are mulling buying vaccine supplies for their staff.

Does an employer have the right to require its workers to be vaccinated? Here's what you need to know.  

The bigger picture:

In their bid to slow COVID-19's spread, governments worldwide are vaccinating millions of people – particularly vulnerable groups like the elderly and frontline workers.

Many wealthy countries are now seeing dwindling take-up as a small but significant minority choose not to get the vaccine.

A median of 8% of people remain unwilling to get the coronavirus vaccine, according to a vaccine scepticism tracker based on tens of thousands of weekly surveys of people across 15 countries carried out by data firm Morning Consult.

The national results ranged from highs of 29% in Russia and 18% in the United States, down to about 1% in China.

Businesses pushing for their staff to be vaccinated cite the safety of their employees and customers, particularly in high-contact jobs such as grocery store cashiers and plumbers​.

A vial of the Moderna coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine is seen at a vaccination center in Le Cannet, France, January 19, 2021. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Will employers face legal trouble?

That depends greatly on the laws in individual countries – but in many nations it could carry legal risks for businesses.

"(British firms) can't force that person to take the vaccine by law," said David Sheppard, an employment lawyer at British-based law firm Capital Law.

He said if a worker refuses a vaccination, disciplinary action by a business in Britain could lead to claims of unfair dismissal or human rights discrimination – such as from those with certain religious beliefs.

Britain's justice secretary has said it may be legal for firms to insist on new staff being vaccinated as a condition of their employment but added it was unlikely bosses could make existing workers have vaccines under their current contracts.

In the United States, one major federal workers' union has said it accepts that the government has the "legal right" to require employees to be immunized for COVID-19, though there is speculation that Biden may face pushback from other unions.

U.S. bosses and lawyers have also warned of challenges over asking businesses to police their workers' health decisions.

A medical worker fills a syringe with Chinese Sinopharm vaccine for Serbian Army officers as country begins mass vaccination for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Belgrade, Serbia, January 19, 2021. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Has this happened anywhere before?

There is some precedent for employers in the healthcare industry requiring specific vaccines, such as the flu shot in many U.S. hospitals.

However, a much more common example of this approach is childhood vaccinations. Several governments worldwide have made certain vaccines legally compulsory for children to attend schools.

Many compulsory policies were introduced in reaction to major measles outbreaks spreading across Europe.

In France, where vaccine hesitancy is especially high, parents have been legally obliged to vaccinate their children with 11 vaccines since 2018. The year before, Italy made 12 vaccines mandatory for schoolchildren.

What happens next?

Many businesses are opting against mandating vaccines. The chief executive of Unilever, Alan Jope, for example, one of the largest UK companies, has said they would strongly encourage employees to receive the vaccine, but not compel them to do so.

As many companies gradually bring staff back into the workplaces, businesses will likely have to make more decisions weighing people's personal rights against public safety.

Employers – along with unions and lawyers – will likely be closely watching those who do adopt stricter mandates to help define their own policies and clarify laws around vaccine rules as the pandemic reshapes working norms.   

This article was updated on Oct. 15, 2021 with developments in Italy.

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(Reporting by Jack Graham; additional reporting by Sonia Elks and Emma Batha. Editing by Tom Finn and Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly)

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