As New Zealand continues its public vaccination rollout, many employers are eager to encourage their workers to get vaccinated. Many employers already provide paid time off to their employees who attend their vaccine appointments during working hours. However, some employers are going further to provide rewards and incentives for their employees to get vaccinated.
For example, broadband company Universal Communications Group (UCG) has announced that it will provide an extra day of annual holiday to its employees who get both doses of the COVID-19 vaccination. UCG has more than 1,250 employees and contractors in Australia and NZ that install and maintain broadband communications equipment in homes and business premises.
Although such reward initiatives are well intentioned, employers ought to consider the legal pitfalls. Both the Employment Relations Act 2000 and the Human Rights Act 1993 protect workers from discrimination based on certain protected grounds, such as religious belief and disability. It is noted that ‘disability’ has a broad meaning under the Human Rights Act, and it includes physical and psychiatric illness.
Specifically, it is unlawful for employers to provide workers less favourable terms of employment or conditions of work, by reason of any of the protected grounds. That means, employers cannot treat a worker less favourably, if that worker chooses not to be vaccinated because of their religious belief or their disability (illness or medical condition).
In addition, there is also a legal requirement to accommodate a worker’s religious beliefs and disability. As such, where a religious belief requires its adherents to follow a particular practice, employers must accommodate that practice, provided the adjustment required to accommodate the practice does not unreasonably disrupt the employer’s activities.
In practice, employers will need to consider the legal implications of any initiative that rewards a worker for being vaccinated. In particular, the initiative ought to include provisions which address situations where workers are not vaccinated because of their religious beliefs or their disability / medical condition. As they are legally protected against less favourable conditions of work, they cannot be denied any benefit or reward that are offered to vaccinated workers.
As such, employers may need to establish exceptions in their policy and to include a process for employees to qualify for the same benefit or reward by providing information in relation to their religious belief or disability / medical condition. For example, employers may specify in their policy that employees may qualify for the reward or benefit, if they submit a letter from their doctor to explain how their disability or medical condition has precluded them from being safely vaccinated.
In summary, employers need to carefully consider how they provide and promote any company incentives or rewards. While employers are understandably eager to encourage their workforce to be safely vaccinated, any such initiatives ought to be approached with care to avoid breaching discrimination protections. An appropriate process for considering exceptions may need to be developed with any such initiatives, to ensure that it is successful and compliant.
In our view, it is more effective to provide a positive and fun gesture to reward workers for doing the right thing. There does not need to be formal or substantial incentives. After all, safety is the responsibility of all workers. Being vaccinated should be seen as a larger part of maintaining health and safety in the workplace.