Why we all need paid vaccination leave

First the IEU pushed for teachers and support staff to be included in priority groups for vaccination. Now we’re seeking paid vaccination leave. Here’s why.

Defeating the COVID-19 pandemic demands high vaccination rates. And Australia’s best chance of achieving these high rates across the community involves enabling employees to get vaccinated as a workplace right – a right that is supported by employers and backed by the force of law.

So the IEU joins with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in calling for paid vaccination leave for all workers, including teachers and support staff from early childhood education and care through to secondary schools and post-secondary colleges.

“It’s imperative to have paid leave readily accessible in a pandemic,” said IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam. “Our members’ vaccination appointments are determined by the availability of the vaccine, the length of queues and the difficulty of obtaining GP appointments. To predetermine all these factors to fall outside work commitments is impossible.”

Since late June, the Greater Sydney area has been in lockdown owing to a surge of the Delta variant of the coronavirus. On 11 July 2021, 52 people were in hospital, six of whom were under 25. There were 15 people in intensive care and five on ventilators.

To avoid even longer and more serious health, economic, and social disruption, the nation needs to increase its vaccination rate dramatically. Yet on 11 July, four months into the vaccine rollout, only 8.8 percent of people aged over 16 were fully vaccinated. The rollout has been too slow, poorly organised, and health advice has been inconsistent. It has not been worker friendly.

The vaccines on offer in Australia require two doses to be administered on different days at a vaccination hub or a GP’s clinic. Most people will need to make appointments during working hours for these vaccinations.

One day’s leave per dose

The IEU, along with many other unions, is calling for paid vaccination leave of up to one day per dose.

The IEU has written to Catholic Employment Relations and the Directors of each of the 11 Catholic Dioceses to request this leave. The union has asked for one day of paid special leave for each COVID vaccination (a total of two days) leave that would be additional to existing personal/carer’s leave.

“Employers have a duty of care to eliminate the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace or, if that is not practicable, to minimise it,” IEUA NSW/ACT Deputy Secretary Carol Matthews said. “A safe and effective vaccine is one of a number of control measures that can be used to manage the risk of COVID-19.”

The IEU is seeking these arrangements as members may have difficulty booking a vaccination appointment outside of school hours, Matthews said.

Paid leave would encourage greater vaccination uptake as casual employees wouldn’t face losing two days’ pay and permanent staff would not need to run down their leave.

Some employers understand

Numerous big employers have already heeded the call. The Finance Sector Union reports that several employers, with 130,000 staff between them, have already committed to paid vaccination leave. The United Services Union, which represents employees in local government, utilities and airlines, says that about 50,000 local government employees now have access to paid vaccination leave. More than 100 of NSW’s 128 councils have signed on.

Australia’s largest private sector employer, Wesfarmers, has offered three hours of vaccination leave to employees in major retail outlets including Bunnings, Kmart and Target.

“Looking after people’s health is better for jobs and for the economy,” said ACTU Secretary Sally McManus on July 10.

It is in the interests of employers to offer this leave. First, it’s a good work health and safety strategy, because a vaccinated employee is less likely to catch the virus at work. Secondly, it’s good for the bottom line: should a vaccinated employee get COVID-19, they are less likely to experience serious illness than an unvaccinated one, requiring far less sick leave.

Backed by law

The COVID-19 pandemic has a while to run yet. And because of this the ACTU is pressing for leave to be included in the National Employment Standards (a set of 11 minimum employment entitlements that must be provided to all employees).

“It’s much fairer and better if you just make a rule across the country,” McManus said in The Australian on June 10. “That would mean it’s not left up to individual workers to have to go and ask for it or fight for it.”

In the meantime, unions are pressing for this leave to be included in workplace policies and industrial agreements.

“We’re so much better as a country when we work together,” McManus said to Radio National Breakfast host Fran Kelly on 7 July. “This is a time when everyone needs to do their part.” Now It’s time for employers to do their part by providing paid vaccination leave for all staff.

Pam Smith
Assistant Secretary
Monica Crouch