The New South Wales government has quietly announced it will give hundreds of thousands of public sector employees two hours of paid vaccine leave as it tries to contain the spread of Covid-19 among essential workers but unions want the provision to be strengthened.
The state government, which is the largest employer in NSW, issued an updated communication to its agencies on 16 July outlining arrangements to manage employees and support vaccination uptake.
It has told all NSW government departments that to support employees receiving a Covid vaccine, “agencies may … provide access to special leave of up to two hours or an equivalent payment at base rate of pay”.
The two hours of vaccine leave will be offered in addition to existing leave entitlements, but if an employee experiences side effects from the vaccine they will have to access paid sick leave.
Managers have been instructed to assess applications for vaccine leave to ensure the frontline delivery of public services is maintained, and can request proof of vaccine appointments when assessing leave requests.
Flexible working arrangements to help schedule vaccine appointments are also broadly encouraged for the roughly 400,000 people employed by the state, in the updated guidelines issued via a Department of Premier and Cabinet circular.
It comes as the NSW government grapples with how to limit spread among essential workers, many of whom are public sector employees who are leaving virus hotspots under lockdown and account for a large share of the state’s new cases.
The vaccination leave guidelines are directed to all government departments, including the education department, which employs public school teachers, the health department, which employs public hospital workers, as well as police and other emergency workers. The leave also applies to separate agencies related to departments and state-owned corporations.
The vaccine leave was not publicly announced by the NSW government when the updated guidelines were issued on 16 July, as authorities were examining how they could further tighten retail settings in the greater Sydney lockdown to quell virus spread.
While appreciative of the provision, unions are now concerned the leave has not been adequately announced or advertised by the government.
“It is mystifying that the government is keeping this under wraps rather than screaming it from the rooftops,” the Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said.
“As the Premier and Chief Medical Officer have themselves said, we desperately need to get jabs into arms. It needs to be as easy and attractive as possible.”
Unions NSW are also worried that the wording of the vaccine leave provision, which states that employers “may” provide the leave, will not do enough to drive up vaccinations.
Morey had previously written to the premier Gladys Berejiklian requesting a half day of paid vaccination leave for each dose, as well as two additional days of sick leave, and for the premier to take such a policy to national cabinet to encourage other states to implement a similar policy.
“This entitlement needs to be strengthened beyond an aspiration into an obligation. Agencies must do everything possible to support staff getting vaccinated. That would both speed up the vaccination effort and set the right example to other employers,” Morey said.
The NSW opposition leader, Chris Minns, has also previously called for a half day of paid vaccination leave for public sector workers.
Earlier this month, unions and the NSW government struck a deal to provide paid vaccination leave to almost 50,000 council workers across the state.
It also comes amid a NSW plea for Pfizer supplies from other states, and calls from the NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet to bring back the jobkeeper wage subsidy amid government modelling for a continuation of the current lockdown until mid-September.