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[News Focus] “Recommended” vaccination leave program feared to fail

COVID-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca are given to patients at an elderly care facility in Gwangju on March 23. (Yonhap)
COVID-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca are given to patients at an elderly care facility in Gwangju on March 23. (Yonhap)
Beginning Thursday, the South Korean government is instituting a “vaccination leave” program that would allow up to two days of recovery time for people with immune responses after getting their COVID-19 vaccines.

But questions are raised as to how the program will be followed in the private sector, as the program is advised rather than required for employers, some of which are already short on labor power.

Some are asking the government to make the measure mandatory for employers in all sectors.

The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters announced Sunday that those experiencing adverse symptoms after getting their shots would be able to take one day off without a doctor’s note.

Those working at social welfare facilities could use their sick days, as could essential workers such as police officers, firefighters and military personnel. Businesses are “advised” to grant sick leave for employees receiving the vaccine.

“This leave will not require a note from a doctor or any other support documentation. We are looking to actively grant leave days for those receiving the vaccine if they request them,” Health Ministry representative Son Young-rae said Sunday.

“We are doing this as we are concerned that many of those with adverse symptoms could be rushed to medical institutions if required to submit official diagnoses.”

The measure is a response to complaints from a number of medical workers who said they were unable to take time off despite debilitating side effects. Medical workers were some of the first people in Korea to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Yet the program faces backlash from labor groups, as the voluntary measure could be loosely followed at best at businesses and corporations short on labor power.

The labor groups would like time off to be required of all employers upon request, if only to ensure the smooth progress of the vaccination program.

While only a few select people are receiving COVID-19 vaccines at the moment, the program could cause headaches for employers and employees alike later on, they argue.

“The program is voluntary for the private sector, so it is questionable how closely this will be followed by privately owned hospitals and care facilities,” the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the two major umbrella labor groups in Korea, said in a statement Monday.

“There are a number of cases of severe adverse symptoms already reported, and if vaccination burdens work and everyday lives this much, this could lead people to avoid being inoculated in the first place.”

Using leave days is already difficult for many Koreans, a survey shows, as they are tacitly pressured to continue reporting to work under all circumstances. This adds to concerns that the vaccination leave program could fail to protect the rights of those receiving COVID-19 shots.

Even if they use sick days due to adverse symptoms, they could lose income.

According to a survey of 1,000 employees commissioned by Gabjil 119 in September, close to 40 percent of respondents said they were barred from freely using their leave days. At the same time, 26.9 percent of the respondents said their employers did not provide paid sick days.

The survey said some respondents had been forced to report to work even when they submitted requests to use sick days to go to hospital. In some cases, employees were asked to resign when they requested sick leave, the survey added.

“Under this ‘recommended’ measure, vaccination leave is pie in the sky for those at businesses with five or fewer workers, small-business owners and vulnerable populations,” the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union said in a statement earlier this week.

“People will avoid getting their vaccines unless people are assured of paid leave days by law.”

The government explained that it could not force the vaccination leave scheme on the private sector, as it might be inefficient to grant sick days for everyone when only around 1 percent of those inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine experienced adverse symptoms.

As of Tuesday’s end, 10,575 adverse symptoms had been reported in 852,202 people who had received COVID-19 vaccines. The country has so far reported 26 deaths after vaccination.

Yet the government acknowledged that its vaccination leave scheme is not impartial for workers across all sectors, as the measure will largely leave out some 800,000 freelancers, gig workers and others hired under special contracts such as delivery workers, insurance agents and caregivers.

“There is a need for legislative revision if the vaccination leave program wants to be mandatory for even those in the private sector,” Son said during a press briefing Sunday.

“That is up to the National Assembly and the legislative branch, which has bills on this issue waiting for review.”

At the moment, five legislative proposals have been submitted at the parliament that would provide leave or give attendance credit for classes for those who received COVID-19 vaccines. The bills could be reviewed as early as in April during the provisional session of the National Assembly.

By Ko Jun-tae (