23 Nov 2021

Businesses failing to enforce pass requirements to face big fines - Michael Wood

1:11 pm on 23 November 2021

The government is releasing a new tool to help businesses assess whether they should be requiring workers to be vaccinated.

Watch Minister Wood speaking here:

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood said the assessment tool will be available from mid-December.

Meanwhile, workers covered by the My Vaccine Pass mandate will need to have their first dose by 3 December and be fully vaccinated by 17 January.

Wood said when the traffic light system comes into place from 3 December, it will be a requirement for vaccine passes to be shown for those businesses that opt into it.

"And it'll be a requirement for all workers in those workplaces to comply and to be vaccinated by that date - have their first dose by that date."

This applies to hospitality, events, gatherings, close contact businesses and gyms. On-site tertiary education is also included at the red level.

"This will be a very simple tool to use," Wood said.

He said the tool provides a clear legal framework to help businesses and other employers to decide about vaccinations in the workplace.

It builds on guidance and advice from workSafe, public health agencies, Business New Zealand and the Council of Trade Unions.

It has four criteria, at least three of which must be met before a business can require vaccination:

  • Workers are in an area with less than 100m2 indoor space
  • Workers work less than 1m apart from other people
  • Workers are routinely near others for more than 15 minutes
  • That the workers provide services to people vulnerable to Covid-19

Businesses that opt in or are required to use the passes, but which fail to enforce them, are set to face penalties which are being increased from $300 to $12,000 for a company, or $15,000 for a court-imposed fine for a company.

These fines also apply in other areas where vaccines are mandated, including for teachers, frontline health workers and border workers.

Wood said the new process will not override risk assessments already done under existing guidelines, and all health and safety risk assessments will remain valid.

Legislation allowing the tool to be created and setting up a four-week minimum paid period of termination, as well as time off to get vaccinated, will be passed this week, he said.

"We've tested this with stakeholders and it's received broad support, including from religious communities."

Wood said the legislation would legally protect businesses that use the tool, saying it will provide a "very high degree of legal certainty".

He said the fine details of the legalities of the tool are still being refined, but the tool itself is as laid out this morning.

"We're talking about a couple of weeks at this point."

He said businesses would still have to apply the tool in a way that was fair and reasonable, including communicating clearly and openly with affected employees, receiving their feedback, and making decisions in a reasonable way.

"Cabinet's made the very clear decision that we would not take away the legal rights of employees to test those rights in the court if they think they have been treated unfairly."

Wood said the vaccination requirement had been estimated to apply to 40 percent of the workforce.

He said jurisdictions overseas have applied much higher levels of requirement, such as Austria with an all-of-population mandate and Northern Territory with its requirement for all workers.

"Our experience to date has been that the majority of people are open to being vaccinated and will do that, and that this just can be a little bit of a final push."

He said with 91 percent of eligible New Zealanders having already had their first dose, the vast majority of New Zealanders are already on board and have been vaccinated, and will not be affected.

He said industries seeking for the government to mandate vaccinations could use the tool, but other announcements may be made in the coming days.

"Across the spectrum here we are trying to strike the right balance. We do believe that workplace mandates that are put in place by the government do have a place, but they are a very strong tool and we have to assure ourselves that they are justified on health and safety and public interest grounds."

"We will have further announcements on where we've gotten to on decisions on mandates."

Asked about the urgency of the legislation, Wood said there is a need to move forward to ensure all the systems are set up by the time New Zealand moves to the new framework on 3 December, and with Parliament not sitting next week, that means the legislative work needs to be done this week.

He denied that the government was scrambling to get it set up.

"The tool will lead to relatively clear conclusions through quite a simple process."

"We haven't lived in an ideal world over the last two years under Covid-19 ... and we do sometimes as a government need to get on and put the structures and systems in place that keep people safe and give certainty. Within that we will always try to have as much engagement as we possibly can but also need to move forward."

He said he did have sympathy for those people who would be confronted by the mandatory nature of the decisions.

"The consequences of our decisions in this area affect other people and that's why we believe it is justified and appropriate that we have these requirements in place. Ultimately if a worker in one of these places where transmission is more likely makes themselves more likely to get Covid-19 by not getting vaccinated they're more likely to infect their coworkers, they're more likely to infect their customers including children and people who cannot be vaccinated."

He would not want to put a specific date on how long the regime would last, saying he knew that was what people wanted to know but the reality of the global pandemic was that Covid would be with us for some time.

"Every politician who has ever stood at a podium and said 'this is how it'll be in three months' time or six months' time or a year's time, has proven to be wrong."

At this point, the framework was part of the underlying Covid-19 legislative framework, and would continue for as long as that framework was in place, he said.

"Currently under the law it expires in May of next year, and the government is looking to extend that, but it will not be indefinite."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday, when announcing the traffic light system will begin from 11.59pm on 2 December, said the government would provide extra guidance for businesses to prepare, and release an assessment toolkit for firms wanting to require staff to be vaccinated.

Today, the app for businesses that require proof of the vaccine pass for entry will be launched.

Ardern also announced after Cabinet yesterday hairdressers and barbers in Auckland would be able to reopen when using the passes, in part to trial the system, from Thursday.

Hospitality businesses have also been hoping for some clarification over enforcing the vaccine pass for entry requirement, and on whether all staff would need to be vaccinated.

The government last week said police had been involved in the planning for this and would be available if customers became unruly.

For retail, the vaccine passes are essentially opt-in - with no difference between those using them and those not - and restrictions including 1m distancing under Orange and Red.

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