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Retail workers being docked pay or have to 'pay back' time to attend Covid-19 vaccine appointments

“I asked him to confirm he wants me to postpone getting my vaccine whilst we are in the middle of a pandemic. His response was yes.”

File photo of a retail worker.
File photo of a retail worker.
Image: Shutterstock/Aleksandar Malivuk

SOME RETAIL WORKERS have claimed that they are being docked pay or have to stay back late to ‘pay back’ the time taken to get their Covid-19 vaccine during a work shift.

This is despite messages from the Government and from NPHET asking employers to facilitate workers attending their Covid-19 vaccine appointment.

A number of people have said that their employer has asked them to book an annual day’s leave to get vaccinated, told them to “pay back” the time taken to get vaccinated, docked their pay for the time they took to get vaccinated, or asked them to reschedule their vaccine appointment.

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar told The Journal that ‘it is in everyone’s interest’ for retail staff to get vaccinated and urged employers to be more flexible. 

It’s understood that there has been some reports to unions of retail staff experiencing this, but not a significant amount. Employees who aren’t unionised could also be affected, if not more so than those who are trade union members, but there isn’t a group to ask whether this is the case.

Some workers contacted The Journal about their experience of trying to attend their vaccine appointment during work hours.

One worker, aged 28 and based in the Midwest, said: “We are told our wages are docked for the time we are gone for the vaccine until the time we are back (we have been instructed to clock out) or to work back however long we’ve been gone at the end of our shift.

“For example, I’m working 8am-4pm and I have my first shot at 3.20pm and will have to leave at 3pm, so I will be docked my last hour because I won’t be back in time.”

32-year-old David Johnson is based in Bettystown, and has been a retail worker for 10 years. He told The Journal:

“I got my vaccine appointment last Thursday for this coming Friday. I told my line manager and requested a day’s annual leave. I don’t particularly mind this part, despite not fully agreeing with it.”

David said that because they are not paid during the time they take to attend their vaccine appointment, taking annual leave on the day of their Covid-19 vaccine appointment is the “only real option” to not be short on income.

“My line manager said, ‘Let me check the roster’. 30 minutes later, he came down to me and then asked why did I pick the Friday and could I not reschedule it ‘as we are short staffed that week’. I laughed out loud.

So I asked him to confirm he wants me to postpone getting my vaccine whilst we are in the middle of a pandemic. His response was yes, and that can I not do him a favour. Again, all I could do was laugh.

The Journal was also told by a vaccinator that two women wearing a retailer’s uniform who arrived separately to be vaccinated said that they had to ”pay back” the time they took to come for their vaccination by working overtime.

The vaccinator said that one of the women had asked whether she needed to stay for the 15-minute observation period after the injection, because she had to go back to work or else she would have to work late.

The second woman wearing the same uniform was also in a rush to go back to work because she had to “pay back” the time she missed which was not part of her lunch break.

Do employers have to give them the time?

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar said he would ‘strongly encourage all employers to facilitate staff getting to their vaccine appointment’. 

He told The Journal: 

It should be possible to organise shifts and working time around appointments, but where that’s not possible, particularly when appointments are given at short notice, employers should be flexible.

“It’s in everyone’s interest that staff and customer-facing staff especially get vaccinated. It’ll help us to ensure that businesses stay open through the delta wave and any future waves of infection.”

When asked about worker’s wages being docked for taking time off to get their vaccine, Varadkar told Newstalk’s Pat Kenny today that employers need to “have a heart, basically”.

He said a bit of “name and shaming might help”, stating that he would certainly like to see people that know about companies and employers that that are behaving this way to make it known.

Varadkar said an appointment for a vaccine is the same as a medical appointment. Most of the time, people can organise their shifts around their appointments, giving plenty of notice.

“But actually what’s happening at the moment because the vaccine program is going so well, as people are registering for their vaccine, and they’re getting an appointment for a days time or two days time or three days time, your shifts might already be set out.

“So we’re saying to employers that in all circumstances, you really should let your employee get their vaccine and not dock their wages for it… You really facilitate them and not penalise them financially, it is in your interest, that your staff are vaccinated for all sorts of obvious reasons. And you know, have a heart basically,” he said.

The Department of Enterprise has said that employers are not legally obliged to offer time off for vaccine appointments – but they should bear in mind that doing so will “will greatly assist in the recovery of individual businesses and of the wider economy”.

It said in a statement last month that employers are “obliged to take reasonable steps to provide a safe place of work for their staff” – and if they fail to do so, workers can make a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission.

When asked if this was still the Department’s position, a spokesperson said that it was.

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“The Department encourages employees to engage with their employer in the first instance once they are assigned a vaccination appointment to explore all options available to enable them to receive the vaccination should it fall during working time.”

When asked whether the Department was in touch with retailers about facilitating vaccinations, a spokesperson said that while it “is not contacting individual employers, we would encourage all employers to be as flexible and supportive as possible with a view to maintaining good employment relationships over the long term”.

Vaccines for the young during a busy summer season

Speaking to The Journal, Labour Senator Marie Sherlock said that there was a need to ensure that all employers are accommodating their workers who wish to be vaccinated when their appointments arise.

“No one gets a choice when their appointment is,” she said.

“The key message has to go out, it’s important that people get their vaccine, but it’s also important for the business and their workplace [that] those who want to be vaccinated are vaccinated.

“In the rare event that there is an adverse reaction from the vaccine, it’s also important that employees are looked after by employers.”

She said that during what is a very busy retail and hospitality season, where workplaces will be under pressure due to demand, some businesses may find it difficult to allow for the time for their young staff to go and get vaccinated.

I have a particular concern that workers in retail and hospitality may find themselves in a less-than-accommodating environment, and we cannot afford people to be missing their vaccination when they want it.

“We need the Government to come out with a clear message that employers need to accommodate workers full stop – that hasn’t been obvious in recent weeks.”

GP Patrick Kelly, who is taking part in the vaccination programme, said:

“I think it’s important that workers (especially those who earn the minimum wage) and have effectively been frontline for the whole pandemic are appreciated and respected by society at large and their employers. It makes perfect business sense for businesses to facilitate vaccination in whatever way they can.”

With reporting by Christina Finn

Are you a retail or hospitality worker who has found it difficult to attend a Covid-19 vaccine appointment during work hours? Get in touch: grainne@thejournal.ie. 

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