Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: At least 220 Department of Social Development employees refuse vaccination and risk losing their jobs

Public health experts say the peak of the outbreak is expected in Auckland within two weeks. Video / NZ Herald

At least 220 employees of the Ministry of Social Development have refused to be vaccinated against Covid-19 and are about to be fired.

But the department appears to have suspended any final decision on dismissal after a High Court ruling against vaccination warrants for police and defense force personnel last week.

It reviews advice from Crown Law and the Civil Service Commission on the ruling, which said government vaccination mandates for police and defense workers were an unwarranted incursion into the Bill of Rights.

MSD introduced its Covid-19 vaccination policy in mid-December, giving staff three months to get vaccinated or face redundancy. This is an internal policy rather than a government mandate.

Deputy Managing Director of Organizational Assurance and Communications, Melissa Gill, said vaccination was the primary way MSD protects its people and community from the spread and impact of Covid-19.

Staff were told that MSD was required to “take all reasonably practicable steps” to minimize the risk of harm from Covid-19 (and any variant), including its transmission in the workplace.

They were also told that vaccination was necessary in order to reduce disruption to MSD services and reduce transmission to “the wider community, including our customers”.

Staff who were not fully vaccinated by January 10 were required to work from home or were placed on paid leave if this was not possible. An MSD document said if they were still not vaccinated in February, they would likely receive redundancy notice by February 18 and lose their jobs a month later – unless other options could be found.

Gill said preliminary ruling letters about potential layoff were sent to about 220 of MSD’s 9,400 employees. This equates to a vaccination rate of 97.7% in the department, higher than the national rate of 95.5%.

The High Court ruling last week appears to have slowed down the termination process, at least temporarily.

A source with knowledge of the process told the Herald that the scheduled March 18 layoff date for unvaccinated employees is now on hold. And two unvaccinated staff said meetings scheduled for this week to discuss their situation had been postponed.

About 98% of MSD staff are vaccinated against Covid-19, higher than the national rate of 95.5%.  Photo / Sylvie Whinray
About 98% of MSD staff are vaccinated against Covid-19, higher than the national rate of 95.5%. Photo / Sylvie Whinray

Lynda Whitlow worked at MSD for nine years as an administrator in Canterbury.

She said her job description didn’t require her to work in an office and that she had hoped MSD could show some flexibility rather than have a general policy of vaccination or firing.

Whitlow suffered from several health issues, including severely reduced lung function caused by inhaling black mold spores in an earthquake-damaged home. She hadn’t ruled out getting vaccinated, but was hesitant because she had had several reactions to childhood vaccinations.

The Department of Health says the significant benefits of the Covid-19 vaccination far outweigh the adverse effects.

Sarah Cilliers has worked for MSD for nine years and was currently a case manager in Waikato.

Cilliers, a mother of five, said she received redundancy notice two weeks ago and had five days to respond. She had answered, but any final decision seemed to have been delayed.

She said she had given up on the vaccination due to a “minor” heart condition.

An increased risk of heart inflammation after vaccination has been observed in studies overseas, but experts say the overwhelming benefits of vaccination outweigh the rare risk of these conditions. Cilliers said any risk was too much for her.

Labor lawyer Michael O’Brien said departments would have developed their vaccine mandate policies in a completely different Covid environment and long before Omicron arrived in New Zealand.

“They will now have to be more circumspect. Dismissal in New Zealand is always around the concept of what is reasonable in all the circumstances.

“And a dismissal that might have been acceptable in December 2021 may not be acceptable in March 2022, given that Omicron’s circumstances have changed.”

Gill said MSD is reviewing its health and safety risks as new health advice comes in.

Although the number of employees awaiting redundancy is relatively low, it comes at a time when MSD is under pressure to provide support during the Omicron outbreak – while dealing with staff shortages caused by the outbreak. herself.

This week, four labor and revenue offices were closed in Auckland alone – in Papatoetoe, Mangere, Otara and Three Kings – due to infected staff or household contacts. Service centers have also been closed in Thames and Shirley.

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Joel C. Hicks