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working from home ‘Return to office won’t be possible until late next year,' says employment expert


Retail stores are back in business but offices face a longer wait. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Retail stores are back in business but offices face a longer wait. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Retail stores are back in business but offices face a longer wait. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Thousands of workers may not be back in the office until late next year as employers wait for a full vaccine roll-out.

Younger staff working from home, and who are not dealing with the public in their daily jobs, are close to the bottom of Nphet’s priority list for immunisation.

Some big employers, including Google, have already made a decision to reopen their traditional workplaces late next year. A spokesperson for Google confirmed that a new global policy to push out the return to the office to September will apply in Ireland, when it will also test a new flexible working week.

Employment lawyer at Lewis Silkin Ireland, Síobhra Rush, does not believe employers will be happy to return to offices full-time until the vaccine has been made available to most staff.

“I would not be advising any employers to tell their employees to come back to the office just because we know a vaccine is coming,” she said. “Employers will have to carry out risk assessments and go by the public health guidelines.

“From April you may find offices reopening on a very limited basis and it may stay that way until most of the general population is vaccinated.

“I could see it being at least September before realistically they will reopen fully.

“Of course, there’s the question of what reopening fully will look like. Employers will be offering hybrid models, a few days working from home and a few days in the office.”

Employers cannot force workers to get vaccinated, but can encourage them to do so.

Health and safety legislation obliges them to carry out an assessment to identify workplace risks and remove or minimise them. Employees have a legal duty to cooperate.

If workers refuse to get the vaccine, their employer could be legally justified in asking them to work from home, unless they refuse due to medical advice or because of their religious beliefs.

Otherwise the employer could face a discrimination claim.

In the UK, equality legislation protects employees against discrimination on the grounds of philosophical beliefs, which might include anti-vaccine views.

However, it cannot be used as the basis for a claim here.

After the oldest and most vulnerable people are vaccinated, healthcare workers who are in direct patient contact roles are the first group of workers in line for inoculation on the government priority list.

They are followed by people in the 65 to 69 age bracket.

‘Key workers’, including those providing services essential to the vaccination programme, will receive the vaccine next, although the definition has to be “further refined”.

Workers in crowded conditions and key workers in essential jobs who cannot avoid a high risk of exposure to the virus are further down the list.

“They include workers in the food supply system, public and commercial transport and other vital services,” said the document.

Next are primary and second-level school staff, special needs assistants, childcare workers, maintenance workers, and school bus drivers.

Following them are people aged 55 to 64 and those in occupations seen as “important to the functioning of society” by Nphet.

They include third-level institutions, entertainment and “goods-producing” industries.

Those aged 18-54 who did not have access to the vaccine come second last, followed by children.

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Online Editors