Even though the Singapore government has expressed that taking the COVID-19 vaccine is not compulsory, it has also emphasised the need to expand the nation’s vaccine coverage to build resilience against COVID-19.
It has therefore been announced that employees in selected sectors must be fully vaccinated or undergo additional COVID-19 tests under the “Vaccinate or Regular Test” (VoRT) regime from 1 October 2021. Subsequently, from 1 January 2022, only employees who are vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 within 270 days can return to the workplace.
In view of these regimes, some employers may compel their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. As an employee, on the other hand, you may either not want to be vaccinated, or be unable to receive the jabs for legitimate health reasons.
This article will help you learn more about whether your Singapore employer can legally compel you to get COVID-19 vaccinations, and the potential implications of not being vaccinated on your employment.
It will discuss:
Can Your Employer Make You Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19 in Singapore?
The national vaccination policy in Singapore remains that employers should not make vaccinations against COVID-19 compulsory.
Under the VoRT regime, however, employees in selected sectors will have to undergo regular testing if they are not fully vaccinated. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) also encourages all employers to adopt the VoRT regime as a company policy for new and existing employees.
The VoRT regime
The VoRT regime must be implemented for selected sectors regardless of whether the company has a “work-from-home” practice. This is to enable the government to detect possible infections early and keep the workplace safe.
Under the VoRT regime, employees in selected sectors must undergo additional COVID-19 tests if they are not fully vaccinated. You are considered fully vaccinated either:
- 2 weeks after you have received the full regimen of Pfizer-BioNTech/Comirnaty, Moderna, or any World Health Organization’s Emergency Listing vaccines; or
- 2 weeks after you have received one dose of Pfizer-BioNTech/Comirnaty or Moderna vaccines upon recovery from COVID-19.
Unvaccinated employees must be tested for COVID-19 using Antigen Rapid Tests (ART) on days 3 and 7 of every week. These tests under the VoRT are on top of the tests that both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated employees may have to undergo as part of the separate Rostered Routine Testing (RRT) scheme.
While testing under the VoRT is mandatory for unvaccinated employees, your employer cannot require you to be vaccinated to enter your workplace. In the event you decline vaccination (but undergo testing), he/she also cannot terminate you based on your vaccination status.
The selected sectors that the VoRT regime applies to include:
- The healthcare sector, eldercare sector and settings with children 12 years and below, as these sectors interact with the vulnerable segments of the population
- Sectors where there are interactions with customers in higher-risk mask-off settings, and the borders and COVID-19 frontline work. These sectors include F&B establishments, gyms and fitness studios, and personal care services
- The Public Service, including the uniformed services
- Sectors that interact more frequently with the general public, including retail mall workers, workers in supermarket outlets, taxi and private-hire car drivers, last-mile delivery personnel, driving school instructors/private driving instructors, and public transport frontline staff
The full list of selected sectors can be found here, although it is meant to be non-exhaustive and further details will be released subsequently.
You should refer to the website of the government ministry in charge of your sector for further details.
When adopting the VoRT regime, employers may implement differentiated workplace measures for vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, in consultation with their respective unions. This includes subjecting unvaccinated employees to Pre-Event Testing (PET) using either an ART or Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test for workplace events and redeployment of unvaccinated employees to lower-risk settings.
Employers can also choose to implement their own workplace measures as they deem. However, such measures must be reasonable and necessary for business operations, and implemented to better protect the health and safety of all employees.
Employers who choose to adopt the VoRT regime as their company policy should also inform affected employees and job-seekers in advance of the differentiated workplace measures and any associated costs to employees.
New measures starting from 1 January 2022
From 1 January 2022 onwards, only employees who are vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 within 270 days can return to the workplace.
Testing will be mandatory for all unvaccinated employees intending to go to their workplace. Such employees will not be allowed into the workplace unless they can produce a negative PET result to their employers, and the result must be valid for the duration that employees are present at the workplace. Unvaccinated employees will also have to pay for the costs of the PET.
However, the position is different if you are unvaccinated and medically ineligible for vaccines under the National Vaccination Programme (NVP). In this case, you may be exempted from the above new measures when required to work on-site.
Sick leave for employees who test positive for COVID-19, or experience side effects after being vaccinated
Your employer should facilitate vaccination by granting paid time-off to you to get vaccinated (including vaccination booster shots), and additional paid sick leave (beyond the contractual or statutory requirement) in the event you face a vaccine-related adverse side effect.
If you have tested positive for COVID-19 and are hospitalised, you will be entitled to paid sick leave for the period of hospitalisation. The period of sick leave must not be less favourable than what you are statutorily entitled to.
Can Your Employer Make You Disclose Your Vaccination Status?
Your employer is entitled to ask for your vaccination status and proof of vaccination only for business purposes. Such business purposes include business continuity planning, which involves strategising how the business will resume after an unexpected disruption to business operations.
Your employer may also need to know your vaccination status to decide whether you can:
- Travel for business
- Be deployed to high-risk or front-line roles
- Be permitted to enter the workplace without producing a negative PET result (from 1 January 2022), or be excused from the VoRT regime
If you refuse to disclose your vaccination status, you would be treated by your employer as unvaccinated for the purposes of the vaccination-differentiated measures and the bearing of costs (which will be discussed below).
Outside of these situations, your employer cannot legally force you to disclose your COVID-19 vaccination status. Your employer should also explain to you clearly why they need to know your vaccination status.
Can Your Employer Make You Undergo COVID-19 Tests as Part of Your Employment?
Apart from the VoRT regime, it is compulsory for certain employees to undergo Rostered Routine Testing (RRT) even if they are fully vaccinated (as mentioned above). This includes employees working in dine-in F&B establishments, gyms, fitness studios and personal care service industries that require employees to be unmasked, e.g. facial, hairdressing, etc.
RRT is carried out using Fast and Easy Testing (FET) through the administration of ARTs.
Your employer can also make you undergo COVID-19 tests if it is part of your company policy. For example, employers may continue to deploy unvaccinated employees in higher-risk activities with regular testing, unless they have chosen a redeployment policy.
However, where it is not compulsory for you to take a COVID-19 test, you should not be discriminated against for not providing a negative test result to your employer. Discrimination may come in the form of your employer taking punitive measures against you for not getting tested, such as cutting your bonus, or terminating or demoting you.
What are Your Options If Your Employer Requires You to be Vaccinated or Get Tested Regularly but You are Uncomfortable With This?
You may wish to discuss with your employer other possible options that allow you not to be vaccinated or get tested regularly.
For unvaccinated employees, employers may allow you to work from home, but this is their prerogative. You may request to be moved to a lower-risk role that is in line with your experience and skills, according to your company’s existing redeployment policy.
The remuneration given should also be commensurate with employee’s responsibilities under such roles. If there are no existing redeployment policies, the terms and conditions for redeployment should be mutually agreed between employers and employees.
However, you should be aware that your employer can also seek to recover COVID-19 related costs from you for declining to be vaccinated or tested regularly, in the event that such vaccination or testing is compulsory. If you are unvaccinated and medically eligible for the vaccines, your employer can require you to bear additional costs, such as:
- COVID-19 related expenses, including cost of test kits and the costs of Stay-Home Notice (SHN accommodation) incurred over and above those for vaccinated employees. You may also have to pay for PET done outside of working hours. Your employer may recover such costs from you either through salary deductions or by requiring you to pay the relevant service provider directly. Your employer should not recover such costs from you if such costs are already being covered by the government.
- Leave entitlements. If you are unvaccinated, you may be discharged later from treatment or may be served with longer periods of movement restrictions such as SHN, compared to vaccinated employees. Your employer can deduct the additional days you have to serve from existing leave entitlements. If your leave entitlements have been exhausted, you may be required to go on no-pay leave. However, your employer should not put you on no-pay leave for an extended duration without your mutual consent in writing.
- Medical benefits. Employers may choose to exclude you from medical benefits associated with COVID-19 (e.g. insurance coverage), unless these are required by any law.
If you do not agree with your company’s policies, you may wish to discuss them with your employer. If both of you cannot agree, you may contact MOM for further advice.
Alternatively, if the above measures prove ineffective in resolving the issue amicably, you may consider changing your employment as a last resort. However, be aware that other employers may also impose a vaccination requirement at the point of recruitment or advertisement for new hires, if all existing employees in the same role are fully vaccinated.
Special considerations for unvaccinated employees who are pregnant or medically ineligible for vaccines
Employers are advised to give special consideration to unvaccinated employees who are pregnant or medically ineligible for vaccines. They should consider allowing such employees to work from home if possible or redeploy them to suitable jobs that can be done from home (with remuneration commensurate with the responsibilities of the alternative job).
What Can You Do If You Believe that You have been Unfairly Treated at Work, or Unfairly Dismissed From Work, For Refusing to Get Vaccinated/Tested?
You may approach your union or MOM for advice if you feel that you have been treated unfairly by your employer over COVID-19 vaccinations and testing at your workplace.
Your employer should not terminate or threaten to terminate the service of an employee on the sole ground of declining vaccination or testing. Neither should your employer terminate you solely because you cannot be at the workplace to perform your contracted work.
Employers should instead consider alternative measures such as allowing you to work from home, redeploy you or put you on no-pay leave.
However, as a last resort, employers may contractually terminate your employment if you are unvaccinated despite being medically eligible, and fail to comply with reasonable vaccination-differentiated workplace measures. For instance, if you refuse to undergo mandatory testing even though it is part of the company’s policy and, as a result, you cannot return to the workplace to perform your contracted work.
As most of the vaccinated employees are expected to return to the workplace more frequently in the future, a protracted absence (e.g., if you are put on no-pay leave) from the workplace may affect your individual performance. Your prolonged absence may also have an adverse impact on team or organisational performance. All these may be reflected negatively in your work reviews, and your employer may choose to terminate you as a last resort. This is unless you are pregnant or medically ineligible for vaccines, where employers are advised to not let your absence from the workplace affect their assessment of your performance.
Generally, your employer has the right to terminate your employment by giving the required notice or salary in lieu of notice. In doing so, your employer does not have to state the reason for termination.
Nonetheless, if you believe that you are being terminated because you declined to get vaccinated, then you may have been wrongfully dismissed. You may also be wrongfully dismissed if you have complied with the recommended testing requirements, but your employer wanted you to get tested more frequently and you declined to do so.
If you believe that you have been unfairly or wrongfully dismissed, you may consider first resolving the matter internally. This could be done by arranging a meeting with your Human Resources department to find out why you have been dismissed, or lodge an internal complaint against the alleged unfair treatment.
If this fails, you may wish to file a mediation claim with the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) to mediate the matter between you and your employer. If TADM is unable to help you resolve the matter, you may choose to bring the case to Employment Claims Tribunals (ECT).
If you are worried about how deciding not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 might affect your employment, be aware that vaccination is not compulsory. In lieu of vaccination, however, you may be required to undergo more regular testing.
Regardless, your employer cannot terminate you or threaten to terminate you on the grounds of you declining to get vaccinated or tested, unless you have clearly refused to conform to reasonable vaccination-differentiated measures.
You should also be aware that employers may put you on no-pay leave or terminate you as a last resort if you are unable to be at your workplace when required. This is unless you are pregnant or medically ineligible for vaccines.
If you feel uncomfortable with your employer’s actions or believe that you have been unfairly treated, there are options available to try to resolve the matter (as discussed above).
You may also wish to consult an employment disputes lawyer who can advise you on your employment-related issues, such as on filing a claim with TADM and ECT, and help you file a civil claim if necessary.