Reinstate One, Reinstate All
By Laine Jolly
An unvaccinated Northern Territory firefighter has recently returned to work after being sacked in late 2021 because of the NT government’s Covid vaccine mandate.
The NT Public Sector Appeals Board made the decision to reinstate the person with some back pay after the Territory mandate was dropped on June 15, 2022.
While likely a welcome relief for this firefighter, the decision has highlighted the inconsistent outcomes for the seven vaccine mandate-related dismissals within the NT Fire and Rescue Service (NTFRS).
Five of the terminated firefighters appealed their dismissals at the Fair Work Commission (FWC). Four of them had not been vaccinated and the FWC upheld their terminations.
The fifth firefighter, who had declined to disclose his vaccination status, received a FWC finding of unfair dismissal and has also been given an order of reinstatement. The outcome in the remaining firefighter’s case is not known.
In all seven of these dismissal cases, the firefighters were on leave and the employer argued that although they were not contravening the public health orders at the time (by attending their workplace unvaccinated), they had an ‘inability to perform duties’.
The NTFRS claimed that a firefighter on leave could be recalled to work at any time in the case of an ‘emergency’, and in that event they would need to be vaccinated. Of course, a terminated employee cannot be recalled to duty either, so one wonders what the NTFRS stood to gain by terminating these workers.
This argument was made despite having not applied ‘recall from leave’ in the past. Furthermore, Humpty Doo fire station was temporarily closed due to staffing shortages in August 2022, yet vaccinated firefighters were not recalled from leave to remedy the situation.
Let’s consider this idea of ‘recall from leave’ more carefully. Would it be fair for an employee to be terminated for being on holiday overseas and unable to immediately return to work? What if an employee were camping in a remote area of the Territory without phone reception, and therefore uncontactable?
Returning to the sacked firefighters; now that the mandates have been revoked, can the rest of the seven expect their jobs back?
When contacted in November for her position on the reinstatement of dismissed staff, NT Commissioner for Public Employment, Ms Vicki Telfer, had this to say:
‘Following the June 15, 2022 decision [to cease the vaccine mandate], I advised agency CEOs that employees who separated from [Northern Territory Public Sector] as a result of their unvaccinated status were welcome to re-apply for vacancies within the [Northern Territory Public Sector]. It is NOT my position that employees should be automatically reinstated.’
But is it reasonable to expect dismissed staff to reapply for existing vacancies, rather than automatically reinstating them? After all, they were not sacked for incompetence; they were sacked for what should have been a personal medical decision. To deny them reinstatement not only further hurts these individual staff members and their families, it also risks harm to the broader NT community who rely on their essential services.
One could also argue that it is a waste of taxpayer funds to advertise, recruit and train new staff, rather than reinstate those who already possess the necessary knowledge, skills, and many years of experience. And the fire service is just one public service. It is likely that the collective experience of all sacked public service workers stretches into the hundreds of years.
Whatever outcomes may result from these latest rulings, Territorians must surely be aware of how farcical the NT government’s position has become.
At the time of the dismissals, there was significant evidence to suggest that Covid vaccination did not stop infection or transmission of the virus. In answer to an email query, the Australian Department of Health and Aged Care conceded that prior to the provisional approval of the Covid vaccines, the TGA was not provided with data related to transmission, and its media unit also stated that ‘transmission effects are not an approved indication of any Covid vaccine’. This causes one to question the evidence on which Covid vaccine mandates were imposed in the first place. Over a year later, the failure of the vaccines to prevent infection and transmission is clear, which the NT government presumably now accepts given the mandate’s revocation.
Many former colleagues of the terminated firefighters would like to see them reinstated. Of approximately 141 Darwin-based operational firefighting staff, 112 have signed a petition which is currently circulating within the ranks of the NTFRS. This petition calls for the prompt reinstatement of all staff sacked due to the mandate.
The petition states: ‘We don’t support mass termination under temporary health laws.’ In relation to the view that terminated staff can simply reapply for existing vacancies, the petition asks, ‘…why aren’t experienced fully qualified members being asked to return? One member has 3 decades of service…’
The inconsistency in the outcomes of these seven dismissals is obvious and the message of their former colleagues is clear. So, if the Public Sector Appeals Board finding detailed here applies to one terminated firefighter, why should it not apply to all of the terminated firefighters? And indeed, why should it not apply to all terminated public sector workers?