As Australia faces ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks, the federal government recently outlined an ambitious vision to achieve a 70% vaccination rate by November, with 80% of the eligible population “potentially” having received both doses of a vaccine by December.
In the months to come, as more younger Aussies get vaccinated, many will need to take time off work in order to do it, but some, such as casual workers, will find this difficult without having available leave to use.
Can Australians take time off work to get vaccinated?
As it stands, Australians cannot usually take paid time off work to get vaccinated. According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, paid sick leave can be taken after the fact to recover from possible side effects, but employees aren’t entitled to sick leave to get the jab itself.
This is due to the National Employment Standards (NES), which state that sick leave is only available when an employee is unfit to work because they are ill or injured. Individual contracts and awards may include extra rules or provisions about sick leave, but there is currently no statutory provision for paid vaccine leave on a federal level.
The past year has been tough for Aussies, and it’s likely that many of us may have had to use up savings and leave entitlements throughout the ongoing lockdows. Realistically, many of us will need to take time off on a work day in order to get their COVID-19 shot (plus booster if needed).
For some, the idea of taking unpaid time off work to get this done may be a source of additional financial stress. This is part of the reason why some are calling for the introduction of paid vaccination leave.
What is the benefit of paid vaccination leave?
McKell Institute Policy Officer Connor Wherrett told Canstar that there could be advantages to the Australian Government putting measures in place to allow for paid vaccination leave, both for public health and for individuals.
“A vaccinated workforce decreases the chance of an infection in the workplace,” he said. “Preventing outbreaks are particularly important in retail, hospitality and other service industries that engage with the public.”
For many workers, however, time off to be vaccinated means missing a shift and potentially losing out on income, and the idea of this may lead some to put off getting the jab. While the federal opposition proposed a $300 one-off payment for Aussies to get vaccinated, paid leave could also lessen the burden.
“Paid vaccination leave is the incentive they need to prioritise their health and that of the community,” said Mr Wherrett.
Where does Australia currently stand?
Australia is currently lagging behind other OECD countries in terms of vaccination rates – as of early August 2021, we ranked 37 out of 38. Wherrett told Canstar that Australia is also lagging in paid vaccination leave, and incentives to get vaccinated generally.
“Canada is now leading the world in the vaccine rollout, and this is no surprise when most of Canada’s provinces offer a form of paid vaccination leave,” he said.
He told Canstar that the NSW Government has already offered two hours of leave to its employees, and that other governments should follow, and therefore offer the whole public sector paid vaccination leave.
The Queensland Council of Unions recently wrote to the Queensland Government asking for two days’ paid vaccination leave for all government employees, including casual staff, and discussions are said to be ongoing.
As mentioned above, relations between employers and employees in Australia are regulated by the federal government via the National Employment Standards, a set of 10 standards that are contained within the Fair Work Act (2009).
These standards set out such things as a minimum wage provision, and leave entitlements. An amendment to the Fair Work Act could allow for private sector employees to take paid vaccine leave, to which they are not currently entitled.
In addition to this, or as an alternative, it would also be within the scope of the federal government’s powers to provide incentives to private sector businesses to encourage employees to get the jab.
“The US Federal Government also gave a tax credit to employers who offer paid time off to their employees for the purpose of vaccination,” Mr Wherrett said, and it would be possible for the Australian federal government to do the same.
How much paid vaccination leave would be appropriate?
Mr Wherrett told Canstar that in his view, a half-day of paid leave should be adequate to allow commuting, waiting, getting vaccinated and returning back to the office or home. “Any short-term illness or side effects of the vaccine would then be covered by personal leave,” he said.
What companies are already offering paid vaccination leave?
Many private sector companies have proactively begun offering paid vaccination leave to staff. Companies such as Domain, Propsa, Zip and Athena Home Loans have all committed to this in recent weeks.
In July, Lewis Land Group CEO Matthew McCarron announced that all 650 of the company’s permanent and casual staff would be given two days of paid vaccination leave.
In making the announcement, McCarron said that “we believe the only pathway out of the disruptive cycle of COVID-19 lockdowns is via vaccination. In addition, the physical and mental health of our entire team is of utmost importance.”
Many of Australia’s major banks and financial institutions have agreed to a proposal from the Finance Sector Union (FSU) to grant paid vaccine leave to staff, with CBA, Westpac, ANZ, Australian Super, HESTA and Care Super all signing on.
While its employees aren’t covered by the proposal at the time of writing, NAB has said its priority is the health and wellbeing of its employees and customers, and it would allow staff “flexibility” to get vaccinated through paid pandemic leave or sick leave.
Rather than utilising a specific type of leave, some companies may instead allow employees to book vaccine appointments during contracted work hours, and pay them for their time as normal. This is the case with Canstar, where employees are encouraged to get their vaccine.
In addition to providing vaccination leave, some of Australia’s banks have taken other proactive steps to assist in the vaccination process. In August, Westpac rolled out a program of vaccine hubs to assist staff and their families in Sydney’s most impacted local government areas to get easier access to a vaccine.
Major retailers like Woolworths and Bunnings have also indicated that they would be willing to help with the national vaccine rollout by hosting pop-up vaccination clinics at shopping centres and warehouses around the country.
In April of this year, Bunnings partnered with the Victorian government to host pop-up COVID testing centres in the carparks of some stores around the state.
What incentives are the federal government offering Australians to get vaccinated?
During Question Time recently, Scott Morrison was critical of Labor’s proposed $300 vaccine payment, saying “this is a bad idea … the Leader of the Opposition’s proposal is a vote of no confidence and an insult to Australians.”
COVID-19 Task Force Commander Lieutenant-General John Frewen later said that the federal government might consider “incentives” to vaccination later in the year, in a bid to reach vaccine-hesitant people, and that lotteries have been discussed, while the idea of some sort of cash bonus might still be on the table.
Right now, rather than proposing incentives to get vaccinated, the federal government is pushing for special rules for fully vaccinated people, which will allow them to move around with greater freedom.
While this plan has not been laid out in any detail yet, it is assumed that vaccinated people will be allowed greater freedom to access community activities such as sporting events and concerts.
The federal government recently backed a proposal for digital vaccine certificates, which will be available as QR codes and linked to Australians’ individual MyGov accounts.
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