COVID vaccine deadline reaches nearly 1 million essential workers in Victoria

The deadline for essential workers in Victoria to receive at least one COVID-19 vaccine to work on site has expired, requiring employers to turn away unvaccinated employees.

About a million workers from dozens of industries in the state will now have to show evidence that they have had at least one vaccine or an appointment booked before October 22 to allow them to continue working on the site, unless they have a medical exemption.

The same group of workers must have received two doses by November 26.

The Victorian government announced the mandate for workers in both Greater Melbourne and the regional Victoria region earlier this month. It is a rule similar to that of New South Wales and the Northern Territory.

Tim Piper, president of the Victorian Employers Association, Ai Group, said the deadline created big problems, especially for small businesses that rely only on one or two workers.

“Many members of the Ai group are reaching out to us to express their concern that some workers are refusing to be vaccinated,” he said.

“Skilled and experienced employees pay a premium, and some companies are on their end trying to decide what to do.

While Victoria’s broad vaccine mandate has been welcomed by the majority of essential workers, some who refuse to vaccinate have lost their jobs or been suspended without pay.

Public health directives impose an obligation on employers, rather than employees, requiring companies to prevent employees from working away from home.

Some workers lost their jobs or were laid off without pay because of the mandate. (ABC News: Daryl Turbie)

“I really feel for the SMEs, as I get over all these competing issues,” employment attorney Natalie Gaspard told ABC Radio in Melbourne.

“Never in my legal career have I seen an intersection of really complex ideas — state public health orders, you have health and safety obligations at work, there are privacy considerations, there are discrimination considerations — and it all moves very quickly.

“Yeah, it’s really hard.”

Hundreds of nurses and midwives refuse to press

Since the national government announced it is requiring vaccinations for elderly care workers earlier this month, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) has seen hundreds, but not thousands, of its members refuse an injection.

“Due to the CHO’s guidance, these members will not be allowed to work on the site and for many this will unfortunately mean they risk losing their jobs,” said Paul Gilbert, assistant secretary for the Victorian branch of the ANMF.

“The vaccination required for nursing, midwifery and aged care is not a new concept for ANMF members. Obtaining up-to-date vaccinations is a requirement for all student nurses and midwives prior to their first clinical placement,” he said.

Gilbert said members have been notified about a number of unfair dismissals that have been transferred to the Fair Work Commission, where the commission found the employer vaccination requirement to be a reasonable directive.

The Fair Work Ombudsman, which advises and enforces workplace laws, told the ABC he was “unable to comment on the specifics of any inquiries.”

“It doesn’t mean you need to automatically fire them,” Gaspard, a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills, said while the chief health officer’s guidance now prevents unvaccinated workers from accessing the site.

Odd in the way the directives are issued, the current mandate is only valid for another week, but will likely be extended after that. Unlike in the state of New South Wales, there is no set date for when the mandate will be lifted.

Because of this, Ms Gaspard said suspending workers or forcing them to take time off was within the rules while it was a temporary order, but dismissal at this point could be considered unfair if the employee was given leave they could benefit from.

Most embrace vaccination

A health care worker prepares a vaccine at a center in Melbourne.
The majority of Victorians now have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.(ABC News: Daryl Turbie)

For the majority of Victorians, the Mandate was not a problem.

The state is racing toward protecting 90 percent of its adult population from COVID-19 with at least one dose of the vaccine.

Paul Guerra of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry some members of the group encountered hesitation about the vaccine among staff.

But he said it is only prevalent in a minority of Victorians.

“Fortunately, in all states, Victoria appears to be the lowest in terms of vaccine frequency, so hopefully it’s a minority of people there,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister and Education Secretary James Merlino acknowledged on Wednesday that there is no “single group in society” that does not include the small minority of people who do not want to be vaccinated.

But he said that when it came to teachers and school staff, the “vast majority” had already received at least one dose.

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