Even if employers follow the Fair Work advice they will still bear the risk should an employee who is sacked or disciplined for refusing a vaccine chooses to sue.
Ms James named Fair Work guidance and public health orders, which are implemented by the states but sometimes coordinated through forums such as national cabinet where Canberra has a major voice, as two key measures that could help businesses.
The federal government has repeatedly emphasised that vaccination will generally be voluntary, but Industrial Relations Minister Michaelia Cash praised Fair Work’s advice.
“Vaccination is free, voluntary and an important way to ensure the Australian community and economy can emerge and recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Senator Cash said.
There are already orders in some states for high-risk workers – such as in aged care and quarantine – to be vaccinated. The tiers laid out by Fair Work are very similar to those unveiled by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday.
Senator Cash said some workers in high-risk settings are required to be vaccinated to protect vulnerable people and the broader community. These are requirements set by state and territory public health orders.
Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said her agency would continue to update its advice as the pandemic evolves and said her team could give advice to workers and firms on 13 13 94.
Andrew McKellar, the new chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said companies wanted to offer vaccinations to staff but needed indemnities, which have been offered to doctors in case patients experience very rare side effects.
“Employers want to contribute to facilitating vaccinations, but we need similar indemnities,” Mr McKellar said.
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said the best way to reach vaccine targets was through co-operation, paid leave for staff and education campaigns.
“The option the Morrison government is pursuing instead is walking away from the issue and leaving individual employers to push for vaccine mandates,” Ms McManus said. “This is a recipe for division and resentment and will mean the vaccine rollout continues to lag behind the rest of the world.”
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