To speed up a return to normal, some businesses are incentivising their staff to get vaccinated. But lawyers say forcing employees to get a COVID jab could be risky
By Jack Graham
Feb 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After widespread disruption caused by COVID-19 in 2020, businesses around the world hope the roll-out of vaccines this year can accelerate a return to normal.
To speed things up, some are even incentivising their staff to get vaccinated. Dollar General Corp, Instacart and Trader Joe’s in the United States are paying frontline employees to get inoculated.
A British plumbing company has gone further, announcing plans to make a COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for new hires and exploring adding the requirement to existing staff contracts.
Britain's justice secretary said on Thursday 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.
Does an employer have the right to require staff 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. In many countries, distribution has proved difficult and slow.
Health experts fear that vaccine hesitancy could slow things further. A study in November led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that only 54% of those surveyed in the UK and 41.2% in the U.S. would “definitely” accept a vaccine. That figure dropped by 6.4% (UK) and by 2.4% (U.S.) after participants were shown online misinformation.
Businesses pushing for their staff to be vaccinated cite the safety of their employees and customers, particularly in high-contact jobs like grocery store cashiers and plumbers.
Will employers face legal trouble?
They could. Forcing employees to get vaccinated does carry legal risks.
“They can’t force that person to take the vaccine by law,” said David Sheppard, an employment lawyer at Capital Law.
He said if a worker refuses a vaccination, disciplinary action by a business in the UK could lead to claims of unfair dismissal or human rights discrimination – such as from those with certain religious beliefs.
Employers would have a legal burden to show that their policy was reasonable and proportionate, including by judging the level of risk in the workplace posed by an unvaccinated employee or by proving that other accommodations, such as remote work, could not be made, Sheppard said.
But the legal issues differ between countries. In the U.S., for example, businesses may face fewer restrictions.
In December, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said companies could require that employees get inoculated as a condition of entering the workplace.
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?
So far, most businesses are opting against mandating vaccines. The chief executive of Unilever, Alan Jope, for example, one of the largest UK companies, said last week they would strongly encourage employees to receive the vaccine, but would stop short of making it compulsory.
However, there is a broader debate about what freedoms businesses should afford people who refuse vaccines. Technology companies are exploring the idea of ‘vaccine passports’ for international travel.
In New South Wales, Australia, the premier Gladys Berejiklian is proposing that venues like pubs may be able to require vaccination proof before people enter. As lockdowns gradually loosen, businesses will likely have to make more decisions weighing people’s personal rights against public safety.
*This article was updated on Feb. 19 with comments from Britain's Justice Secretary.
(Reporting by Jack Graham. Editing by Tom Finn, (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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