Chantal Storer loves her job at Panna Bakery, but last week she worked her final shift.
- Vaccination against COVID will soon be mandatory for 75 per cent of WA’s workforce
- About 70 per cent of businesses are worried their staff will refuse the jab
- There are fears this will lead to a shortage of workers
Ms Storer has worked hard for the past year, learning how to coax gluten-free flours to rise and create delicious crusty loaves, and she is highly prized by her employer.
She is one of a little over 1 million West Australians forced to decide whether to take the COVID vaccine or give up their livelihood, and she’s chosen to go.
The WA Government introduced the vaccine mandates last month, and they will soon affect 75 per cent of the workforce — one of the most widespread requirements to date in the nation.
It has left some businesses uncertain as to whether they can fill the gaps in their workforce, and has put people like Ms Storer between a rock and a hard place.
“It’s completely unfair.
“It’s not just me … I have so many other friends that have left their jobs that they love, long-term jobs, long-term careers, and we’re all just up in the air now about what to do.
“It puts me in really, just a heartbroken position. I love it here.”
Majority of WA workforce must be vaccinated by end of January
There are three major deadlines looming for WA workers in the next few months, with the workforce broken into three categories:
Group 1 includes employees in industries with high transmission risk, vulnerability or those critical to community safety.
Ms Storer falls into Group 2, which includes businesses that deliver critical services like food, petrol, transport and education.
Together these two groups make up around 60 per cent of WA’s workforce.
In the event of a lockdown, the vaccination mandates will capture another 15 per cent of employees who won’t be able to go to work unless they have had both jabs.
Ms Storer’s now-former employer, Susan Walsh, is sad to see her go both for personal and professional reasons.
“Because we work specifically with a gluten-free product and an artisan product, there are no courses or qualifications to do what we do, I’m training (bakers) quite specifically in the processes and the methods,” she said.
“And that takes time …it’s not something you can walk in and go: ‘I’m going to pick this up on three months’.”
She said it was tough to find employees and having now lost two of her eight staff over the mandates, she will likely have to reduce her trading hours.
“It’s really been challenging to get employees period, I think, at the moment,” she said.
“And these aren’t necessarily highly skilled jobs, so baristas, people to work in cafes and restaurants.”
Ms Walsh said while she wanted her staff to be vaccinated, the issue was complex and the impact on small businesses could have been better understood.
Why are people quitting or getting fired over the jab?
For Ms Storer, she is worried about possible side effects from the vaccine.
She has seen information online about people developing myocarditis and pericarditis — inflammation of the heart muscle and the surrounding tissue — after receiving a vaccine.
The Australian health department says these reactions are very rare but have occurred in some people after receiving mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna.
“A small increased risk of pericarditis and/or myocarditis has been observed in people who have received an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine … compared to unvaccinated people,” the department says.
“This is particularly seen in males under 30 years old after the second dose of mRNA vaccine.”
It says in the US, reported rates in males were 10 cases per million after first doses, and 67 cases per million after second doses.
But the department notes COVID-19 itself is associated with a substantially higher risk of myocarditis and other cardiac complications compared to the COVID vaccines, and it urges people to weigh these health risks against possible side effects.
Ms Storer says she is very aware of the risks of COVID, but would prefer to live a healthy lifestyle and rely on her immune system to fight the virus without the vaccine.
She is disappointed in the way the issue has riven the community, and says she has been subject to abuse for her choice.
“The separation, the divide that is creating between people, it’s not nice, it’s awful.
“Whereas actually, I’m choosing my own preventative path, I’m not choosing to do nothing.”
Veteran truckie getting out
Veteran truck driver Mike Williams is opposed to the jab primarily because the vaccination has been made mandatory for employees.
He drives 90-ton trucks hauling ore in Western Australia’s mining heartland of the Pilbara, but by the end of the month, he is expecting to move home to NSW.
“The fact of the matter is the majority of people, a) don’t know their rights, and b) aren’t in a financial position to say no,” he said.
“We’re not all that footballer, (Carlton’s Liam Jones, who retired after reportedly refusing to be vaccinated), we can’t say well, we’ve made enough money, we can afford to retire now.
“The difference between him and me, or him and someone else, or him and you even, we can’t make that choice.
“We don’t have the financial independence that allows us to make that choice.
“And that’s why these mandates are fundamentally ethically wrong, in my opinion.”
Mr Williams is hoping to receive a medical exemption after suffering a heart attack in recent years but if he doesn’t, he will go home to NSW rather than submit to the mandate.
Mr Williams hosts a popular trucking podcast, On the Road.
He said he’s heard horror stories from listeners of businesses on the brink because they can’t get qualified drivers and they are losing staff because of the mandate.
“The reality of it is, you can’t sit someone in a rigid truck, and then have them up here in the Pilbara driving a quad (four-cart road train) in 10 minutes, it just doesn’t happen. It takes years of experience,” he said.
Fears of a worker drought
Right now, Western Australia has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation at 3.9 per cent.
Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA (CCIWA) chief economist Aaron Morey says there are estimates up to five per cent of workers will quit or be fired because of the mandate.
He said businesses are worried about being able to replace staff.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Chamber, around 70 per cent of businesses are worried their staff will refuse to get the jab and will need to be stood down.
There was around 15 per cent of businesses who did not believe they would meet the government’s timeline for having their staff vaccinated in time.
Mr Morey said businesses were concerned about replacing those they lost.
“We’ve heard from some (small) businesses in our membership that expect to have the vast majority of their staff refusing to get vaccinated,” he said.
“This is all occurring in an environment where businesses are really struggling to fill those skilled worker positions and we don’t have the access to those overseas workers we usually do.”
Mr Morey said while WA’s economy would continue to tick along on the back of the significant resources sector, the job losses were unlikely to have a significant effect on the unemployment rate.
“Some people may leave the workforce altogether, and that actually underpins the unemployment rate, because those people aren’t looking for a job, so it’s unclear how that will flow on to that overall unemployment rate,” he said.
“(I) wouldn’t be expecting to see large movements in that rate on the back of this.”
Mr Morey said he was most concerned about acute impacts in sectors where the deadlines were looming such as aged care and disability care providers and manufacturing, construction and resources.
Union hopes for time to change members’ minds
The Shop Distributive and Allied employees union covers about 200,000 workers in retail, fast food and distribution in WA.
Secretary Peter O’Keefe said they had sought legal advice but there was little room to move.
He said while the majority of his members were happy to comply, there were a significant minority committed to their position.
“I think a number of them may have been fence-sitters, initially, but the instruction from the government, that’s been what’s turned them against (getting the vaccine),” he said.
Mr O’Keefe is asking employers for more time to try to talk his members around.
“The reality is if they want to keep working, if they want to travel overseas, if they want to do a whole bunch of things, they’re going to have to be vaccinated,” he said.
“A couple of members have said to us ‘look, I’ll just take leave until this thing passes’ and we’ve said to them ‘well, wait, when do you think it’s going to pass?’
“Because it’s been our view that this will be around for a while.”
He said going forward, employers and employees are also grappling with the right of vaccinated workers to refuse to work with people who are not vaccinated.
“We’ve had a number of those questions through with people saying, well, if I get vaccinated to protect myself and my family, why do I have to work next to someone who’s not vaccinated?
“So I think that’s going to be one of the next issues that we’ve got.”
The ABC asked the WA government whether it had carried out modelling on the possible economic impact of the vaccine mandates.
In a statement, the government said it expected the impact on unemployment to be limited, pointing to the fact that about 50 out of 50,000 Department of Health workers — or 0.01 per cent of the workforce — had left their jobs in response to mandates.
“The impact of workers in mandated occupations remaining unvaccinated would have a far greater potential impact on the economy than any [impact] resulting from unvaccinated people choosing to leave their occupations,” the statement said.
“When COVID-19 enters the WA community early next year, unvaccinated workers are the most likely to be compromised and unable to work.”