Monday, May 23, 2022
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Shop workers and the great vaccine farce

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RECENT scapegoating of the unvaccinated in the media has extended to stories of corporate retailers such as NextMorrisons and Ikea paying only statutory sick pay for unjabbed workers identified as close contacts of Covid positive cases.

The customary full contractual sick pay is being withheld by such employers (though those who test positive receive sick pay regardless of vaccination status). A commendable exception is John Lewis, whose director Andrew Murphy spoke out against such a policy, saying it would be wrong to ‘cast judgment’ on the unvaccinated.

As someone living in Wales contracted to work eight hours per week with a nationwide retailer, I have experienced this discrimination personally.

The Welsh government have decided that vaccinated workers who are close contacts do not need to self-isolate or face any threat of financial hardship. However, unvaccinated employees – which in this context includes those who have received a dose of the vaccination within 14 days – must self-isolate for ten days even if they test negative.

The media hyperbole gives the impression that this is about safety, but it is probably linked to the fact that only businesses in England and Wales with fewer than 250 staff are eligible for the statutory sickness pay rebate scheme,  plus a desire to cut costs.

The differentiation between vaccination status in close contact isolation rules issued by Welsh government is questionable, since it is widely acknowledged that the vaccinated are still able to catch and transmit Covid. Such rules are clearly enabling employers to find out their employees’ vaccination status through stealth. A call to my line manager to suggest I needed to isolate when my husband developed symptoms at work and was asked to test, led to my being immediately asked whether I was vaccinated. I exercised my right not to declare my vaccine status and requested that this information be kept private in line with GDPR rules. There had been no prior written guidance issued to staff by my employer regarding ‘close contacts’, only advice stating, ‘If you think your absence is Covid related, speak to your line manager’. Deliberate obfuscation of policy, it would appear.

Without knowing either way whether I had rolled up my sleeve, my managers had to treat me as though I were unvaccinated. This meant having to take two days unpaid absence over the ten-day ‘isolation’ period. I am not eligible for sick pay due to earning under the required threshold, but those who are contracted to work more hours can opt to divulge their non-vaccinated status in return for statutory sick pay at £96.35 per week which is taxable. I sent a letter to head office asking why their policy had not been previously made explicit. I also asked whether vaccinated staff need to bring in proof of vaccination and if so, who is responsible for verifying proof and have they received training for this? No response has been forthcoming.

I have, however, been reliably informed by my store manager that indeed nobody checks vaccine records! It is therefore possible to turn up for work as an unvaccinated close contact, which makes a complete mockery of the so-called guidance especially as there is no routine testing required at work. If this was about safety, why are retailers and public health agencies seemingly unconcerned about customers entering stores who are close contacts – knowingly or unwittingly?

Interestingly, our store managers have never to my knowledge kept staff fully informed of colleagues who have previously tested positive and had to isolate. We have occasionally heard rumours that someone had ‘got Covid’ i.e. had a positive test result. Managers have not routinely tried to ascertain which staff members had been in close contact with affected colleagues. Posters in the locker rooms also encourage staff to ‘switch off their phones’ when left in lockers, presumably to avoid getting pinged unnecessarily (although this was not stated openly on the posters).

Given that there was enough evidence to mount a legal challenge against the Welsh government bringing in a Covid pass for cinemas and concerts, where is their scientific evidence for differentiating rules regarding close contacts?

This seems a very unfair way to treat retail workers, most of whom have toiled tirelessly throughout the pandemic and it is putting undue financial strain on a sector of the national workforce which is undervalued, amongst the lowest paid and already under considerable stress since restrictions began. How many retail workers will read these media reports and feel coerced into getting vaccinated to avoid financial hardship and discrimination?

Recent legal advice posted online states: ‘Reducing contractual sick pay for some unvaccinated employees could also be indirectly discriminatory. Again, employers will have to justify this – a careful “case by case” assessment is crucial, rather than unbendingly applying a sick pay policy. Employers will also need to ensure that any variation to contracts regarding new sick pay schemes are implemented legally and fairly’.

In the meantime, the downtrodden retail workers may have to take advantage of the current self-certification for up to 28 days if identified as a close contact or simply fake a lateral flow test if unvaccinated and claim contractual sick pay.

As someone once said, ‘If you’re going to break the rules, you might as well break them correctly.’

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Nicola Lund
Nicola Lund
Nicola is a former teacher, and now a part time retail worker and carer. Her Twitter handle is @MrsLund1.

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