With today's announcement that a COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for use in New Zealand, attention will likely soon turn to practical implications. Can employers require employees to be vaccinated?
This is yet another issue in which New Zealand's employment law is being required to react to, and address, COVID-19 related circumstances. For the reasons set out below, our view is that in most circumstances it will not be lawful for employers to make vaccination compulsory for employees without also contemplating exceptions or carve outs to any compulsion, as appropriate.
There is no legal issue with an employer strongly encouraging vaccination – including having this occur in-house (if this is possible, given the vaccine roll-out) or during work time. The issue is the extent to which an employer can require employees to be vaccinated, and then take disciplinary action to enforce the obligation. The question is therefore whether requiring an employee to be vaccinated is a 'lawful and reasonable direction'. There are a couple of factors to consider in this assessment.
First, a vaccination is medical treatment. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act contains a right to refuse to undergo medical treatment. While the Bill of Rights Act does not apply to private activities (including private sector employment), it is likely to be relevant to the question of lawfulness and reasonableness, including of workplace directions.
Second, we anticipate employers will seek to justify a mandatory vaccination direction on health and safety grounds. But, New Zealand is Covid-free (or close to it) and the vast majority of workplaces are currently operating normally (or close to it) without vaccination. As such, for most workplaces the vaccination status of one individual is unlikely to make a material difference to health and safety – at least in our current environment. On this basis, it may not be reasonable to direct an employee to be vaccinated over their own personal objections (even if there are situations where such objections may not be reasonably held). This will depend on the nature of the work performed by the individual (eg it may be reasonable in some roles, such as health or aged care workers).
Third, the Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on specified grounds. The specified grounds include "religious belief" and "ethical belief", which, depending on the reason for declining vaccination, could present a defence. While "ethical belief" has traditionally been interpreted as the lack of a religious belief, it is not inconceivable that it could capture someone who is anti-vaccination. If so, an employer could not lawfully discriminate on this basis. This is, however, subject to such belief not unreasonably disrupting the employer's activities (although the onus is on the employer to establish that accommodations would amount to unreasonable disruption). Again, that is likely to be dependent on being able to demonstrate that there is a health and safety risk.
Where does this get us?
Strong employer support for vaccination is lawful. Making vaccination compulsory for employees may not be lawful unless an employer indicates a willingness to consider exceptions. Exceptions could be targeted at employees who are not able to be vaccinated for physical health reasons, but could also consider the circumstances of anyone who has a philosophical objection.
People who decline to be vaccinated could be required to work from home (if possible, under employment agreements and given the nature of the relevant role). Again – this will likely depend on the particular circumstances of the workplace.
Please feel free to get in touch with a member of the team to discuss this issue further.