[authors: Yasuyuki Kuribayashi, and Yuki Takahashi]*
We asked our member firms around the globe to provide some insight on employer and employee rights when it comes to requiring the COVID-19 vaccine to return to work. Responses from Japan.
For other countries, visit: https://www.theworldlawgroup.com/knowledge-center/employer-covid-19-vaccine-policies
Can an employer require compulsory vaccination? If yes, are there any exceptions or special circumstances that an employer must consider?
No. Even if an employer has a ground under its rules of employment (work rules) to give an order regarding its employees’ duties, such order needs to be reasonable and appropriate to mandate its employees to follow the order. Since the vaccine may cause side effects or allergic reactions for certain persons, in general, ordering employees to take the vaccine will not be considered reasonable and appropriate. Thus, an employer may not mandate vaccination as a condition of employment and the employees may decide to take the vaccine at their own discretion.
Can employees refuse to be vaccinated? How does an employer need to balance its obligation to provide a safe work environment with an employee’s rights?
Employees can refuse to get vaccinated. On the other hand, since employers have the duty to ensure the safety of the workplace, it is desirable for them to take various measures to protect employees’ health, such as thoroughly disinfecting the workplace, requiring employees to wear masks at the workplace, avoiding meetings in a way that causes unnecessary crowding, and adjusting the number of employees who come to the office so that physical distancing among employees can be maintained. The employer can also take preventive measures such as asking employees who are suspected of being infected to refrain from coming to the office.
In the event of a refusal, can an employee be dismissed for refusal to comply with the employer’s vaccination policy? Will the employee’s refusal constitute just cause for termination?
It is up to the employees to decide whether to get vaccinated, and the employer may not discipline an employee for refusing to get vaccinated. Regarding disciplinary actions against employees, Article 15 of the Labor Contract Law of Japan states that "if an employer takes disciplinary action against an employee and such disciplinary action lacks objectively reasonable grounds and is not found to be appropriate in general societal terms in light of the characteristics and mode of the act committed by the employee pertaining to such disciplinary action and any other circumstances, such disciplinary action shall be treated as an abuse of rights and be invalid."
What benefits or accommodations do employers have to make for vaccinated employees?
There is no need to provide benefits or accommodations to employees who get vaccinated. Unlike in the U.S., efforts to provide incentives to those who get vaccinated have not gained traction in Japan where vaccine rollout is slow. At the local government level, there are plans to give incentives such as gift certificates and points to people who get vaccinated.
Can vaccinated employees refuse to work in the same vicinity as employees who are not vaccinated?
The employer may order the employees to come to work at the workplace stipulated in the employment agreement. An employee who refuses to come to work even though the employer has ordered him to come to work, can be considered absent from work. However, the employer is obliged to ensure the safety of the workplace and it is necessary to take measures as described in the answer to the second question above. If ensuring the safety of employees in the workplace would be difficult, the employer should consider measures such as allowing the employees to work remotely. In addition, if an employee who has been ordered to go to work has asked to take the annual paid leave for such days, the employer may not change the days unless the designated days will be detrimental to the business of the employer.
In your country, are employers required to provide paid leave for employees to get vaccinated?
In Japan, employers are not mandated to provide additional paid leave for employees to get vaccinated. However, the government encourages employers to introduce a special paid vaccination leave, and some companies have actually started introducing it.