The news this month that US bank Citigroup is to begin firing staff unvaccinated against COVID-19 at the end of January, unless they have an exemption, has opened up a challenging and complex debate for employers and workers.
Citigroup is the first major Wall Street institution to implement a strict vaccine mandate. The US government has already mandated vaccines for federal employees. The stricter measures in the US come as employers grapple with the effects of the Omicron variant that is spreading around the world. The highly infectious nature of the new variant means large numbers of workers are having to isolate, which is causing major disruptions.
In the UK, Swedish furniture retailer IKEA also announced this week that it would cut sick pay to the statutory minimum of £96.35 a week for some unvaccinated employees who are isolating after contact with a positive COVID-19 case.
IKEA said: “We know this is a highly emotive topic and we appreciate there are many unique circumstances. As such, all will be considered on a case-by-case basis.”
Philip Richardson, partner and head of employment law at law firm Stephensons, says: “Ikea’s decision highlights a shift in the way organisations are now approaching the pandemic. Many have reached a point of intense pressure when it comes to staffing and costs and it is highly likely that other organisations will follow suit over the coming weeks as they try and navigate this surge in cases.”
In the UK, unlike in some other countries, there is no legal requirement to be vaccinated against coronavirus. A blanket policy requiring staff to be vaccinated is unlawful and will carry discrimination and health and safety risks.
The World Health Organisation says that vaccine mandates may be a proportionate policy response, but should be a last resort, and only used if other policy interventions have failed.
In the UK, the government has argued against mandating vaccinations on the grounds of individual liberty. The UK also already has very high levels of vaccine take-up. The government, however, has amended the Health and Social Care Act 2008 to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for healthcare workers unless they have an exemption. From April, this mandate will extend to all frontline health and social care workers and other staff such as porters and receptionists that come into contact with patients.
British accountancy firms are not mandating vaccines for staff. KPMG says it is not mandating vaccinations but is encouraging employees to get vaccinated. Most KPMG staff are still working from home. The Big Four firm said if office access is required, staff must complete a risk assessment form to ensure “our people are in a safe position to return and are comfortable doing so”.
EY UK says it has no plans to mandate vaccines for staff, who are also mostly working from home. The firm says: “Our UK offices will remain open for those who need them, but we have issued guidance to advise our people to work from home where possible.”
A spokesperson at Deloitte said: “We strongly recommend that people are fully vaccinated and would request that anyone attending a Deloitte office (whether vaccinated or not) will have tested negative for COVID-19 with a lateral flow test within the last 48 hours.”
PwC says its is "not requiring proof of vaccination and don't envisage that changing. We'll continue to monitor and follow Government guidelines.”
Chris Goulding, managing director of recruiter Wade Macdonald, says business leaders should tread carefully when considering vaccine policies and consider options such as offering flexible working hours and paid time off to accommodate vaccine appointments during work hours, and time off for potential side effects such as headache or fatigue.
Goulding says: “With the vaccine debate still hot, employers must decide how much they are willing to let it influence their working conditions, recruitment processes and retention rates. But the real tricky question is: if an employee were to refuse vaccination and subsequently catch the virus, how sympathetic should employers be?”
However, Joseph Lappin, head of employment at law firm Stewarts, says the more “aggressive policies” that employers such as IKEA and Wessex Water are adopting are risky.
Lappin says: “Those staff who are not vaccinated and who have to self-isolate after coming into contact with an infected person will understandably feel aggrieved if they are punished financially. Distinguishing between vaccinated and unvaccinated staff in this way is bound to create tension.
“Paying different rates of sick pay is not as aggressive a policy as introducing ‘a no jab, no work’ policy, but nevertheless could give rise to complaints from staff and is potentially an employee relations issue.”
With case numbers high but falling, there are suggestions that we have hit the peak, but current debate is also turning to the prospect of ‘living with COVID-19’ and that opens up a whole new debate for future recruitment contracts.
CIPD COVID-19 vaccination: guide for employers
The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) has published a guide for employers on COVID-19 vaccinations policies. It recommends employers have a clear and visible covid vaccinations policy. But it advocates a voluntary approach to encouraging vaccine take-up.
The guide also highlights the issue of workplace risk, which places a duty on employers to protect themselves and everyone else at the workplace, and strengthens employers’ encouragement that employees should agree to vaccination.
Employers will need to look at each case individually, and consider contractual terms, data protection, and disciplinary, grievance and dismissal policies.
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