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Bob Venema on the IR implications of remote work and the vaccine

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In this episode of the Work Conversations podcast, John Wilson sits down with the Bayside Group’s National Manager of Workplace Relations, Bob Venema.

This is an interesting time for employers and employees around the country, as we begin to navigate this new “COVID normal” world, which will see the transition of many employees back into the workplace and the introduction of the coronavirus vaccine, among the pervading uncertainty of sudden lockdowns and increased restrictions. With many years of experience working in workplace relations, HR and employment law, Bob addresses some of the key considerations for employers wanting to establish a safe and compliant business in this tricky and changing landscape.

COVID-19 has been a steep learning curve for everyone, and Bob says that before even contemplating bringing employees back to the workplace, it is important to employers to first look at their business on a strategic level and asses whether it is ready for the physical return of the workforce. There are questions businesses need to be asking, such as “what should happen should there be a snap lockdown? Do we have protocols in place for this?” and “how do we keep our staff safe upon return to work?”. Planning for multiple scenarios, he says, will offer the best protection from non-compliance for businesses and provide the greatest safety for employees.

Above all, Bob emphasises the importance of communication with employees, so they know which direction the business is moving in and what the overarching plan is.
“Really look at this strategic level first, and have a plan for multiple outcomes,” he says. “Factor in the chance that there might be a snap lockdown, because you need to have a contingency plan. And I can’t say this enough but communicate with your staff.”

Bob says that employers should understand that each employer will have different feelings about returning to work, all likely tied to their own individual circumstances. According to an early survey conducted by the Fair Work Commission, only five percent of employees wanted to return to their workplace in a full time capacity, while one-third wanted to return on a part time basis.

Bob says that though the law is clear that if businesses have a COVIDSafe plan in place and an employer’s job requires them to be onsite, then disciplinary action may be appropriate if there is a refusal to return. However, this is very nuanced and employers should be aware of the exemptions and employee rights that need to be understood. For example, employees have the right to request flexible working arrangements and employers have the duty to consider these. This was around before COVID, however will likely be more frequently requested moving forward.

Reasons an employee may refuse to return to work and might have reason to remain working from home could include being a person of risk, being the carer of someone at risk or with coronavirus, or a business not having a sound COVIDSafe Plan. An employer can only refuse the request for flexible working arrangements based on reasonable business grounds.

Finally, John broaches the subject of the COVID-19 vaccine: can employers force, or even request their staff to take it?

Interestingly, Bob explains that this isn’t a new concept. For example, childcare employees are required to have the flue vaccination. And while the Federal Government doesn’t want to make any mandatory vaccination on a universal basis in Australia, workplace law states that an employer needs to do everything as is practicable to maintain a safe workplace. Theoretically, this may mean needing all staff to have the vaccine.

Navigating this grey area will be challenging for employers unless given more specific guidance for the government and workplace legislation. However Bob shares some sound advice.

“An employer needs to ask themselves if it’s lawful and reasonable that a person must have the COVID vaccine” he says. “That it’s preferred, I mean, I don’t think there’s any debate around that in itself, but must this happen? Because the person might have very good reason not to – we don’t know. And that’s where you need to open up the communication with employees… and work with your people to address the question on a case by case basis.”

Listen in to learn more.

If you require assistance with managing your workplace risks with regards to coronavirus or any other matter, you can get in touch with Bob Venema from Bayside Group Workplace Relations here.

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