Tuesday, 22 June 2021 19:49

By Kirsty Gibson, Associate, and Johan Botes, Partner and Head of the Employment & Compensation Practice, Baker McKenzie Johannesburg. 

After months of speculation, the Department of Employment and Labour in South Africa has provided guidance in relation to vaccination policies within the workplace. On 11 June 2021, the Minister published an amendment to the Consolidated Direction on Occupational Health and Safety Measures in Certain Workplaces (Directive), which makes provision for employers to implement a mandatory vaccination policy in its workplace. 

Implementing the policy

Before an employer implements such a policy, it must undertake a risk assessment within 21 days of the Directive being published, i.e. by 2 July 2021. This risk assessment must:

  • take into consideration the employer's operational requirements;
  • indicate whether it intends to implement a mandatory vaccination policy;
  • identify which employees it will require to be vaccinated based on the risk of acquiring COVID-19 at work, or the risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms due to the employee's age or co-morbidities; and 
  • be conducted in accordance with section 8 and 9 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which places a duty on the employer to maintain a working environment for its employees and other persons that is safe and, as far as reasonably practicable, free from health risks. 

Developing a plan

The employer must then develop a plan which sets out the measures it will implement to ensure the workplace is safe for its employees. This plan should indicate whether the employer intends to make the vaccine mandatory for any employees, and must identity the employees who will be required to be vaccinated, the process which will be followed to ensure compliance with the Directive and whether the employer plans to make the vaccine mandatory as and when it becomes available to employees. Any employer who is of the opinion that the vaccination of its employees is necessary for their health and safety may implement a mandatory vaccination policy. The employer's risk assessment should, however, support this requirement and indicate that there is a legitimate need for the workforce to be vaccinated.

Right to refuse

The Directive sets out guidelines to employers when drafting and implementing a mandatory vaccination policy. In terms of the guidelines, importance is placed on "public health, the constitutional rights of employees and the efficient operation of the employer's business." Where an employer makes vaccination mandatory, it must notify each employee identified in the plan that such employee must be vaccinated as and when the vaccination is available to them, and that the employee may consult with a health and safety worker or trade union representative, should the employee wish to do so. Further, the employer must inform the employee of their right to refuse the vaccine on medical or constitutional grounds. These grounds are specified in the guidelines and makes provision for an employee to refuse the vaccine on the medical basis of a "contra‑indication" of the vaccine (i.e. an allergic reaction to the first dose of the vaccine or to a component of the vaccine), or the constitutional basis of the employee's right to bodily integrity and/or right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion, as set out in section 12 and 15 of the Constitution.

The Directive prescribes that where an employee does raise one of these objections, the employer is required to counsel the employee, refer such an employee for a medical evaluation for any allergic reaction to the vaccine and, where necessary, reasonably accommodate the employee in accordance with the Code of Good Practice: Employment of People with Disabilities, as published in terms of the Employment Equity Act. Such reasonable accommodation may include allowing the employee to work offsite, at home, in isolation at the workplace, or in limited circumstance, the employer may require the employee to work with a N95 mask.

Where an employer does implement a mandatory vaccination policy and an employee refuses to be vaccinated, the employer must ensure that the grounds for refusal are considered fully and that the employee is consulted in relation to the grounds raised. However, should the employer be unable to reasonably accommodate the employee and the employee continues to refuse to be vaccinated, an incapacity procedure must be followed before the employer may terminate the employee's contract.

Paid time off

In terms of section 4(1)(k) of the Directive, employers must give employees paid time off at the date and time of their vaccination, regardless of whether such vaccination is in terms of a vaccination policy or not, and sick leave must be used should an employee experience any adverse side effects from the vaccine. An employer may request proof of the vaccination when returning to work, or proof that the vaccination will take place during working hours. Where an employee is vaccinated in terms of the mandatory vaccination plan, the employer must afford the employee paid time off for adverse side effects of the vaccine, even if the employee has exhausted their sick leave entitlement. Alternatively, the employer may lodge a claim with the Compensation Fund, in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act. In addition, the employer should organize transport to and from the vaccination site, if possible, for employees identified in the mandatory vaccination policy.

Next steps

In order to comply with the Directive, employers must update their risk assessment of the workplace, taking into consideration any employees who are required to be vaccinated. Employers must take notice of the timeframe afforded by the Directive and ensure that the plan is in place before the 21 day period has lapsed. It is important for employers to conduct the risk assessment objectively and determine the actual need for vaccinations in the workplace and amongst certain categories of employees. Further, any objection raised by an employee should be considered seriously and the employer should try to accommodate such employee where possible. However, the employer may dismiss the employee for incapacity as a last resort.