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The Aurora Sky facility in Edmonton.HO/The Canadian Press

Aurora Cannabis, ACB-T one of the largest cannabis companies in Canada, delayed terminating some unvaccinated workers because it was unable to find replacement candidates quickly enough.

The company, which has laid off hundreds of workers in the past two years amid weak sales and a general downturn in the Canadian cannabis market, is now struggling to fill certain skilled positions that were once occupied by unvaccinated workers, according to five current and former Aurora employees.

The Globe and Mail is not naming three of the five employees because they are still employed with Aurora and are not authorized to speak directly to the news media.

Aurora’s approach to unvaccinated workers reflects the conundrum some companies are facing in a tight labour market, legal experts say. An employer might desire to have a fully vaccinated staff, but may need to make concessions because of the current economic reality of hiring.

“We first knew we were going to get laid off in January for health and safety reasons because we were not vaccinated, but some workers are still unvaccinated and are still working at Aurora because the company needed them to stay,” said Jordan Briggs, a former employee at one of Aurora’s cultivating facilities in Bradford, Ont.

Aurora introduced a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy in January, 2022. It required all employees, regardless of whether they worked remotely, to provide proof of vaccination by Feb. 28, according to an internal memo to staff from the company obtained by The Globe. But Aurora then pushed that date to March 21, and subsequently gave unvaccinated employees eight additional weeks of employment. For a handful of unvaccinated workers, their last date of employment is May 16.

Mr. Briggs said he chose not to be vaccinated for personal reasons. He joined Aurora in 2018, working as an irrigation supervisor at Aurora Rivers, the facility in Bradford. His job involved mixing feed and giving it to the plants along with water and nutrients, and managing the lighting and airflow changes in the greenhouse – a key component of cultivating cannabis. “It’s not an easy job to just train someone on,” Mr. Briggs said. “It requires years and years of knowing the cannabis plant and how it grows.”

After informing Aurora that he did not agree with the vaccine mandate and was not planning to get vaccinated, he said that the company requested that he continue working an additional two months because they did not have a replacement and needed his help training a new candidate. He agreed to work until April 1. During that time, he repeatedly asked the company whether it would consider allowing him to stay on if he paid for his own daily COVID-19 tests. Aurora did not budge on its vaccine mandate.

“What I don’t understand is, if I’m a safety hazard in the workplace, then why did you ask me to stay on working?” Mr. Briggs said.

Kerwin Young, who also worked as an irrigation supervisor at the Bradford facility, said he quit his job, despite being vaccinated, because he was afraid Aurora would not be able to find replacement workers for its unvaccinated staff, which would ultimately result in him working longer hours.

“The company has been laying off people and downsizing operations for years. In my team, there are a number of unvaccinated workers. I knew they would get laid off, and I also knew that would mean much more work for me because it is extremely difficult to find people who can do what we do,” Mr. Young said. He added that he was fearful the company would not bother replacing unvaccinated workers for cost reasons.

In a statement to The Globe, Aurora said that individual timelines of working notice provided to those who did not adhere to the vaccine mandate is “entirely unrelated to current recruitment”. The company also said that the announcement of the vaccine policy to its implementation was “over the course of many months,” because it gave time for the employees to “understand the policy and how to become compliant.”

“Throughout this period and the pandemic as a whole, we have maintained operations without any service disruption to our patients, consumers or customers that rely on us,” the statement said. The company added that its employees were given ample notice to adhere to the vaccine policy.

Vaccine mandates have continued to cause complications for employers, especially amid a tight labour market, according to Neena Gupta, an employment and labour lawyer at Gowling WLG. “It is not unusual for an employer to rescind a termination for economic reasons,” she said. “In an ideal world, the employer would wave a magic wand and everyone would agree to get vaccinated as soon as they can, so they won’t have to go through the process of firing and rehiring. But that’s simply not the reality.”

Most provinces have fully lifted COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates and vaccine requirements to gather in indoor public spaces. But few employers have followed suit. In New Brunswick, unvaccinated health care workers were allowed to return to work in mid-April after being put on unpaid leave late last year. The City of Toronto, on the other hand, has kept its vaccine mandate for employees in place.

South of the border, a number of companies have started rehiring unvaccinated workers. United Airlines began reinstating unvaccinated workers in late March, while JPMorgan Chase & Co. said it would allow the rehiring of unvaccinated individuals starting in April.

“The number of companies still terminating people for not being vaccinated has fallen significantly since last fall and winter,” said Stan Fainzilberg, an employment and labour lawyer with Samfiru Tumarkin LLP. Over the past year, the Toronto-based firm has taken on numerous clients who have been fired for being unvaccinated.

Mr. Fainzilberg added that for companies in legal fights with former employees over their vaccine status, rehiring unvaccinated workers, or keeping them employed longer, significantly undermines the health-and-safety aspect of their argument. “It does not make sense. They are choosing to terminate these employees because they are a health risk to the workplace. It will probably not work in their favour, legally, to ask some of them to return.”

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