A childcare worker in Gladstone was dismissed from her role at Goodstart Early Learning (Goodstart) following her repeated refusal to get the flu vaccine, with the Fair Work Commission finding in favour of her former employer in the case of Bou-Jamie Barber v Goodstart Early Learning  FWC 2156.
Goodstart had a workplace policy requiring employees to be vaccinated against influenza, stating that vaccines were “mandatory” for employees. Despite this policy, the policy contained an exemption for employees who had medical conditions preventing the administration of the vaccine. Ms Barber repeatedly refused to comply with the policy on the grounds that she suffered from coeliac disease, had suffered an adverse reaction to a previous flu vaccine, and had a “sensitive immune system”.
In attempting to verify Ms Barber’s claims, Goodstart offered to pay for various medical appointments, although following this process, it remained unclear whether Ms Barber was precluded from obtaining the vaccine. In fact, the Commission found that Ms Barber submitted two medical certificates from different medical practitioners, neither providing a “substantive” medical reason justifying her refusal to comply with the policy.
Furthermore, it was noted that Ms Barber was unable to find a doctor willing to complete Goodstart’s pro forma medical certificate which required the doctor to mark a box if they believed her medical condition would place her at an increased risk of an adverse reaction to the flu vaccination. Given that there was an absence of medical evidence to support her concerns, it was held that her refusal to obtain vaccination was more akin to a “conscientious objection” that did not excuse her from the obligation to comply with the policy.
Is a Mandatory Vaccination Policy Lawful and Reasonable?
In her continued refusal to comply with the policy, Ms Barber failed to comply with a lawful and reasonable direction to obtain vaccination. The Commission considered that Goodstart had legal obligations under workplace health and safety legislation to ensure the health and safety of the children in it’s care in addition to employees, with mandatory vaccinations being the most effective way to reduce the risk of transmission of influenza throughout the facility. The Commission also considered that the policy provided employees to be exempt from the vaccination on the provision of sufficient medical evidence, which Ms Barber was unable to do.
The Commission were of the view that Ms Barber worked in a highly regulated industry and was in direct contact with children who did not have fully developed immune systems and were not old enough to be vaccinated. It was relevant to the Commission that the early childhood education industry has a long-standing history of requiring staff to be vaccinated against certain diseases and viruses, and that the vaccination policy implemented by Goodstart was not inconsistent with industry norms.
In determining that Ms Barber’s dismissal was fair, the Commission drew particular attention to the careful process followed by Goodstart in that the process took a number of months and provided the employee with multiple opportunities to provide additional information and to respond to their concerns and requests.
Can Other Businesses Introduce a Mandatory Vaccination Policy?
The Commission’s decision confirmed that lawfulness and reasonableness of a direction for an employee to be vaccinated must be determined on the consideration of a number of factors, including:
- the type of vaccine that is involved;
- the type of workplace the employee works in;
- the nature of the industry; and
- the individual themselves, including whether any medical exemptions may be applicable.
While such a direction was deemed to be reasonable in the context of early childhood education where hands-on care is provided to vulnerable members of the community, it is unlikely that the decision could be applied more broadly to other industries or workplaces.
If you’re wanting to know whether such a policy would be applicable to your business or if you are considering enforcing or implementing a vaccination in your workplace, contact our dedicated Workplace Relations team today:
Principal Legal Advisor – Workplace Relations
Legal Advisor – Workplace Relations