At least 220 staff at the Ministry of Social Development have refused to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and are set to be fired.
But the department appears to have paused any final decisions about termination after a High Court ruling against vaccine mandatesfor police and defence force staff last week.
It is considering advice from Crown Law and the Public Service Commission on the ruling, which said the Government's vaccine mandates for police and defence workers were an unjustified incursion on the Bill of Rights.
MSD introduced its Covid-19 vaccination policy in mid-December, giving staff three months to get vaccinated or face termination. It is an internal policy rather than a Government mandate.
Deputy chief executive organisational assurance and communication Melissa Gill said vaccination was the primary way MSD could protect its people and the community from the spread and impact of Covid-19.
Staff were informed that MSD was required to "take all reasonably practicable steps" to minimise the risk of harm arising from Covid-19 (and any variants), including its transmission in the workplace.
They were also told that vaccination was required in order to reduce disruption to MSD services, and reduce transmission to the "wider community, including our clients".
Staff who were not fully vaccinated by January 10 were required to work from home or were placed on paid leave if this was not possible. A MSD document said that if they were still not vaccinated by February, they would likely be given notice of termination by February 18 and would lose their jobs a month later - unless alternative options could be found.
Gill said preliminary decision letters about potential termination had been issued to roughly 220 of MSD's 9400 staff. This amounted to a 97.7 per cent vaccination rate at the department, higher than the national rate of 95.5 per cent.
The High Court decision last week appears to have slowed the termination process, at least temporarily.
A source with knowledge of the process told the Herald that the scheduled termination date of March 18 for unvaccinated employees was now up in the air. And two unvaccinated staff members said meetings scheduled for this week to discuss their situation had been postponed.
Lynda Whitlow has worked at MSD for nine years as an administration officer in Canterbury.
She said her job description did not require her to work from an office, and she had hoped that MSD could show some flexibility rather than have a blanket policy of vaccination or termination.
Whitlow suffered from multiple health conditions, including severely reduced lung function caused by inhaling black mould spores in an earthquake-damaged house. She had not ruled out getting the jab, but was hesitant because she had several reactions to childhood vaccinations.
The Ministry of Health says the significant benefits of vaccination against Covid-19 far outweigh adverse events.
Sarah Cilliers has worked for MSD for nine years and was currently a case manager in the Waikato.
Cilliers, a mother of five, said she was given a preliminary notice of termination two weeks ago and was given five days to respond. She had responded, but any final decision appeared to have been delayed.
She said she had decided against vaccination because of a "minor" heart condition.
An increased risk of heart inflammation following vaccination has been observed in overseas studies, but experts say the overwhelming benefits of vaccination outweigh the rare risk of these conditions. Cilliers said any risk at all was too much for her.
Employment lawyer Michael O'Brien said Government departments would have developed their vaccine mandate policies in a completely different Covid environment and well before Omicron arrived in New Zealand.
"They will now have to be more circumspect. Dismissal in New Zealand is always around the concept of what is reasonable in all the circumstances.
"And a dismissal that might have been acceptable in December 2021 may not be in March 2022, given the Omicron circumstances have changed."
Gill said MSD was reviewing its health and safety risks as new health advice came in.
While the number of staff who are in line for termination is relatively low, it comes at a time when MSD is under pressure to provide support during the Omicron outbreak - while also dealing with staff shortages caused by the outbreak itself.
This week, four Work and Income offices were closed in Auckland alone - in Papatoetoe, Mangere, Otara and Three Kings - because of infected staff members or household contacts. Service centres were also closed in Thames and Shirley.