Aged residential care (ARC) is vulnerable to COVID-19 – with disproportionate deaths in this sector compared to the wider population.
Therefore ARC providers’ cautious approach in dealing with COVID-19 is understandable. A community outbreak can take hold rapidly, and the threat to residents should be taken seriously.
Health-worker vaccination – during a global pandemic – is an important strategy in fighting the virus. However, mitigating the risks, including staff vaccination, needs to be balanced with workers’ rights.
Employment rights need to be upheld even during a crisis, and health unions are important in curbing some employers’ tendency to overstep their powers.
Aged residential care appears to be far more risk averse than other sectors in dealing with COVID-19.
We are seeing some providers taking a punitive approach towards workers who decide not to be vaccinated, for whatever reason; or cannot be vaccinated because of their own health status.
Health workers and unions can reasonably expect to be consulted on vaccination policies.
These should outline practical support the employer could provide for staff to be vaccinated – as well as what workers who decided not to be vaccinated can expect.
This includes an obligation to carry out a health and safety risk assessment to work out correct mitigation measures.
Employer support for staff vaccination may increase vaccination rates. This could include giving time off work for vaccination, reimbursing costs for vaccination, and special paid leave for staff who experience an adverse reaction and can’t work.
Employers could increase leave for those unable to be vaccinated – removing financial barriers to staying home when they’re sick.
Gaining a better understanding of why staff might decline vaccination is also important.
For some staff, sharing their reasons requires a trusting relationship – knowing what they share will be treated with respect.
These reasons include personal health conditions or concerns about the effect of the vaccine on fertility. Or it could be based on mistrust of public health campaigns or efficacy of health treatment, due to their own or others’ experiences.
It is only by understanding a person’s decision that a genuine conversation can begin to happen.
What employers must do
Employers must treat staff fairly and reasonably. In the COVID-19 environment that includes:
- Complying with employment law, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment guidelines for employers and the Ministry of Health guidelines for aged care providers.
- Treating the vaccination status of staff as confidential information, and that means not telling other staff, or anyone else including residents or residents’ families without the express agreement of the employee.
- Not imposing a requirement on unvaccinated staff to wear PPE when there is no community spread and without an assessment of risk.
- Carrying out a health and safety assessment in conjunction with the employees and the union.
- Taking an approach that relies on nurses’ clinical assessment of risk and the application of professional judgement. (There is a risk that wearing PPE could become an indicator of COVID-19 vaccination status.)
- Treating all staff individually and not imposing a one-size-fits-all policy.
- Considering an employee’s culture, religion and health status when working with them on vaccination.