A New South Wales woman is seeking damages for unfair dismissal after she was allegedly fired from her job for having the Covid-19 vaccination.
Lainie Chait says she was dismissed by the Newcastle-based Church of Ubuntu last October after her boss found out that she had been vaccinated against Covid-19.
The Church of Ubuntu (COU) runs a wellness clinic that sells alternative medicines, hemp-based products and medicinal cannabis products. In fact, it is one of the largest suppliers of medicinal cannabis in Australia, with more than 2,000 customers.
‘Vaccination inconsistent with religious teachings’
Ms Chait had been working as a client care consultant. She says she received a letter from the church’s vice-president Karen Burge praising her work but also saying that getting a vaccination is inconsistent with its religious teachings. It’s alleged that the letter states Ms Chait can no longer work for the church or be a member of its constituency.
Ms Chait said she chose to get the vaccination in order to be able to travel – both around Australia and eventually to other countries to see families and friends.
For most of 2021, the New South Wales Government, along with other State and Territory Governments have pursued a relentless vaccination strategy which has put many people in the position of having to get vaccinated in order to maintain their jobs, have the freedom to travel, to shop, to eat and restaurants and socialise with friends in pubs, and the list goes on. As a result, now more than 93% of the State’s adult population are double-dose vaccinated.
The Church has said that it is currently looking for alternative working arrangements for Ms Chait, as a subcontractor through some of its affiliate organisations.
In the meantime, Ms Chait has taken her case to the Fair Work Commission seeking about three months’ wages, superannuation and other entitlements not paid during her employment. Sha has also accused her former employer of hypocrisy – serving vaccinated customers and clients, while terminating her for getting the jab.
Ms Chait’s claim comes amid a parliamentary inquiry about the Federal Government’s recently drafted Religious Discrimination Bill. There are concerns about a number of aspects of the bill, including that it could lead to workplace discrimination.
While opponents of the Religious Discrimination Bill fear that it actually undermines all the work that has been undertaken in Australia to eradicate discrimination on the basis of sexuality, religion, age, gender, and race.
However, religions have always been able to make discriminatory decisions about who they hire and fire, who they accept as parishioners based on their religious beliefs without other significant justification.
In Ms Chait’s case, however, the Fair Work Commission will consider numerous other aspects too such as whether her decision to be vaccinated affected her performance, ability or suitability for the role she performed with the organisation. Currently in Australia (The Religious Discrimination Bill is not yet enshrined into law) discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs is not permitted. There are no laws relating to discrimination in relation to vaccines, but there are emerging cases across the country.
Polarisation fosters discrimination
Certainly, Ms Chait’s case is not the first of its kind. A teenage restaurant worker in Tweed Heads, close to the Queensland border in northern New South Wales was dismissed from her job at a restaurant for getting vaccinated.
While instances of discrimination against people who have had the Covid-19 jab are rare, there are, by contrast, hundreds of instances where people who have not been vaccinated continue to discriminated against, at work, in social circumstances, and when it comes to travel. Currently unvaccinated people are unable to travel-interstate from New South Wales into Queensland, unless for a limited and specific number of purposes.
Previous cases relating to the Covid-19 vaccination
Until now, all cases that have been presented to the Fair Work Commission have upheld decisions by employers to enforce mandatory vaccination policies for employees.
At the end of last year, the NSW Supreme Court dismissed the case of Kassam versus Hazzard, which saw plaintiffs challenging aspects of the public health orders issued by NSW health minister Brad Hazzard during the state shutdown, including mandatory vaccines for some workers.
The Supreme Court of NSW ruled against paramedic John Later who challenged Covid-19 vaccination mandates in his profession. Mr Larter’s lawyers submitted in court that their client found the vaccines “morally repugnant” due to his Roman Catholic faith, his morality and his conservative political views. His lawyers also argued that the court should invalidate the mandates because it is unreasonable for unvaccinated workers to be terminated over a “temporary pandemic”.
Justice Christine Adamson dismissed the case, ruling that the ambit of the order was reasonable based on reasons given by NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant, including advice that the virus is high risk and easily transmitted.
As time goes on more similar cases are likely to end up in the FWC and the courts. Both will have an increasingly important role to play in determining how Australia (which does have high vaccination rates overall) deals with discrimination created by heavy-handed pandemic policies.