Russell McVeagh and PwC banning unvaccinated staff from returning to the office

Law firm Russell McVeagh and consulting firm PwC have told employees they won’t be allowed back into the office unless they are fully vaccinated.

The move would make them the first businesses in New Zealand to implement the policy.

Exactly how it would be implemented is still to be worked out, and neither PwC nor Russell McVeagh were available to be interviewed by Newshub, instead sending statements.

"We released our policy because we believed it was the right thing for our people and to do our bit for New Zealand," says Russell McVeagh CEO Jo Avenell.

Both firms say the policy extends to visitors too, including clients who wish to step onsite.

"Our responsibility is to keep all of our people safe. Introducing this policy will enable our people who wish to work from our offices to feel safe coming back into the workplace as government alert levels permit," says PwC CEO and senior partner Mark Averill.

Russell McVeagh’s policy takes effect on November 1, while PwC staff have until December 1 to get fully vaccinated.

"We have supported this by offering a half day’s paid leave for each vaccination. We are also offering onsite vaccinations in our offices outside of Auckland and Waikato," says Averill.

Unvaccinated workers won’t be sacked. They’ll just be restricted to working from home. 

"We have flexibility principles, and the technology in place to allow our people to choose where, how, and when they work," says Averill.

It doesn’t quite go as far as the ‘no jab, no job’ mandates announced by the Government. But James Warren, employment lawyer and partner at Denton Kensington Swan, says in the long-term, it may end up that way.

"There’s obviously a degree of which you can interact with others if they’re all in the office and you’re not, and what that might mean for work allocation, work opportunities, and opportunities for promotion as time goes on."

But Russell McVeagh doesn’t believe it will reach that point. 

"The response we have had from inside and outside our firm has been overwhelmingly positive," says Avenell.

The firm says it surveyed all of its partners and staff. Of the 92 percent who responded, 98 percent said they intended to get fully vaccinated.

"Many are concerned about unvaccinated people being in our office, and a number of people live with or come into contact with people who are considered vulnerable," says Avenell.

Warren says many clients are thinking hard about implementing rules of their own, but he advises looking at the legal justifications, and making sure they’ve got a clear and careful policy in place explaining exactly how it’s going to work, and for how long.

"It’s a less risky and more cautious approach than just ‘let’s hit it with a hammer and try to fix it that way.’ The difficulty is as time goes on, is that sustainable, home working forever? There are many employers that just don’t have that option."

Warren says there are three justifications for implementing such a rule:

The first is health and safety, and whether it's a risk which would normally be more than an employee would experience in the community anyway.

The second is customer requirements, and whether clients are unhappy about coming into contact with someone who is not vaccinated.

The third is government regulation or mandates.

A survey by law firm Simpson Grierson showed 69 percent of employers want mandatory vaccinations for current and future employees. But the Government’s yet to advise the private sector on how this would be implemented.

"If the Government could lead the way with some clearer rules around when they can mandate and on what grounds, I think that would be handy for many employers," says Warren.

The businesses say they’ll be keeping an eye on any updates from the Government.

"We are also mindful that this is new territory for our country, that the Government guidelines are adapting and changing regularly as the situation regarding COVID-19 develops, and we need to be responsive to those changes," says Avenell.

Earlier this week, the Government announced mandatory vaccines in the health and education sectors. Frontline border workers, MIQ staff, and port workers are already required to be fully vaccinated.