Last reviewed 25 February 2021
Opeyemi Ogundeji, researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, explores whether employers should provide their staff with time off to receive their Covid-19 vaccines, and if this time off should be paid.
The UK has approved multiple Covid-19 vaccines and the Government is currently in the process of offering it to the public according to its priority-based strategy. With the Government dedicated to offering a vaccine to all adults by the end of July, and promoting the message that getting a vaccine represents the best chance of returning to some form of normality, employers may be wondering if they need to give their staff paid time off for vaccine appointments.
The answer to this really depends on individual employers. Ultimately, this issue can be dealt with in the same way as any other medical appointment, except employers will need to keep some key points in mind.
Granting time off
Employers need to note that the question of whether they should grant time off will only arise in situations where their employees have been given a vaccine appointment date which falls within their working hours. The reality is that employers may find it difficult to treat these appointments in the exact same way as any other medical appointment. This is because vaccine appointments are allocated based on a priority list with millions of people yet to be vaccinated, thus potentially making it difficult for staff to reschedule them.
As there is no requirement in law for employers to give staff time off for medical appointments, including for the Covid-19 vaccine, the solution may come down to the employer’s business requirements and how much of a difference the vaccine will have on their employees’ ability to do their job. For example, employers who operate within an industry where social distancing cannot easily be achieved may be more inclined to grant time off for vaccinations. However, what is the realistic alternative?
Denying employees the ability to have the Covid-19 vaccine by not granting them time off may have reputational implications on businesses, as well as adverse effects on employee relations. Although we do not yet know for certain, it could also lead to tribunal claims of disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 if some employees are classed as disabled — eg some people who have been asked to shield. This is because the Act stipulates that employers must make all reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of disabled staff and a tribunal may potentially find that granting time off for a vaccine appointment falls under this provision.
Employers also have a duty to take steps which are reasonably possible to safeguard the health, safety, and wellbeing of all their staff. This includes providing a safe working environment, carrying out risk assessments, and implementing measures to help to minimise risk. Where coronavirus is concerned, a tribunal may find that an employer has breached this duty not only if they do not implement Covid-secure measures in the workplace, but also by failing to grant their staff time off to attend Covid-19 vaccine appointments — especially where this request could have reasonably been granted.
The most advisable approach to take if employers find themselves in a compromising position, where an employee’s vaccine appointment clashes with their work responsibilities, is to:
allow employees to attend their appointments and find alternative solutions to manage workload
where there is a valid reason to do so, ask employees if they either received a choice of different dates and/or times, or if they can attempt to request a different date/time that will cause the least disruption to the business.
Should time off be paid?
Just as with other medical appointments, employers are not legally obligated to pay staff for taking time off, unless appointments are taken as annual leave. However, employers may wish to pay their staff, outside of requiring them to take time off as annual leave, in order to incentivise them into accepting the Covid-19 vaccine when it is offered to them. This may be the best approach to take since many employment contracts will likely not allow employers to require vaccine take-up and the general nationwide consensus is to encourage staff instead.
The Labour party has called on employers to grant their staff paid time off so that they can attend their vaccine appointments, emphasising that employers have a role to play in the national fight against coronavirus. The Government’s stance, on the other hand, is not entirely as clear-cut.
The Government’s stance
The Government has not chosen to make the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory as it recognises that there could be some discriminatory elements to doing so — eg where a person cannot take the vaccine due for medical reasons. In turn, it is unclear, though unlikely, whether they will require employers to grant their staff — who are willing to take the vaccine — time off to do so. If they do require it then it is possible that making it a must for staff to be paid for this time off would follow.
However unlikely this may be, employers should nonetheless keep up to date with government guidance for updates.
Covid-19 vaccine policies
Granting employees time off to get vaccinated, paid or unpaid, can be included in the business’ policy on encouraging staff to get vaccinated, along with the following:
providing access to accurate and credible information about the vaccine to allow employees to make an informed decision on it, and reminding them to check the source of any information they may seek for themselves to guard against any misinformation
having senior management pledge to have the vaccine when it becomes available to them (but avoid placing pressure on those staff to have the vaccine)
putting enhanced provisions in place for employees who experience any sickness caused by the vaccine. Having a policy addressing vaccine issues will be the most appropriate vehicle to let your employees know your stance on them.
Since there is no legal requirement on employers to give their staff paid time off to have Covid-19 vaccines, they can treat this the same as they would any other medical appointment, but with some caution. It is important to remember that some employers who would usually ask staff to make appointment for a specific time or date to avoid causing disruption to the business may find that this will not always be possible with the Covid-19 vaccine appointments.
Employers should consider all possible outcomes of either granting time off or otherwise, keeping in mind that if they are encouraging staff to take the vaccine, it may be counterproductive to fail to grant time off for this reason. After all, employers will only need to offer the maximum time off that would be required to attend an appointment and payment for this time off is subject to individual choice.