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A TD Bank branch in Halifax.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Canada’s five largest banks will require employees to be fully vaccinated to work in offices and branches, marking a significant shift in corporate Canada’s stand on vaccination mandates – a position that has coalesced quickly over the past week.

Royal Bank of Canada was the first major Canadian bank to announce that all employees in Canada and the United States must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 31 to work on company premises, in an internal memo to staff on Thursday. By Friday morning, Toronto-Dominion Bank, Bank of Nova Scotia, Bank of Montreal and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce all announced that staff must follow similar requirements.

The detailed rules vary at each bank, but have a common message: Staff who work in offices, branches and other bank buildings have until the end of October to attest that they are fully vaccinated. Even so, the policies leave room to accommodate employees with specific issues, and TD and BMO plan to allow some vaccine-hesitant employees to submit to additional safety measures such as rapid testing instead.

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Banks have encouraged employees to get vaccinated, offering paid time off to get shots, but until recently they had been wary of introducing strict requirements. Only a month ago, several major lenders had no intention to require staff to be vaccinated – in a mid-July interview, Kenn Lalonde, TD’s chief human resources officer, said such a mandate was “really not in our plans.” Banks feared exposure to legal challenges, logistical difficulties enforcing a consistent policy across different divisions and countries, and wanted to avoid getting caught up in a politically charged debate that figures prominently in the federal election campaign.

Yet in recent weeks, banks and other large companies have faced mounting pressure to make full vaccination against COVID-19 mandatory. Last week, Ottawa sent a strong signal by saying it expects federally regulated employers to require vaccination for on-site staff, at the same time it mandated vaccinations for federal workers as well as many transportation workers and domestic travellers.

Over the past week, banks reached the same conclusion: “This is the right thing to do to protect the health and safety of everyone who is working in TD locations, and we are encouraged that many other organizations have taken similar measures,” Mr. Lalonde said in TD’s memo.

Spokespeople for each of the five banks declined to comment beyond the contents of their companies’ internal memos. National Bank of Canada, the country’s sixth-largest lender, declined to comment on whether it plans to introduce a similar policy.

Other factors have contributed to “a changing landscape,” said Mona Malone, BMO’s chief human resources officer, in an internal company memo on Friday. Those include the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant, new guidance from public-health authorities and governments, and pressure from employees. “Many colleagues consider the vaccination status of close co-workers a significant factor impacting their thinking for returning to office-based work,” she said in the memo.

As a result, acceptance of vaccination requirements in workplaces has gained momentum: a recent poll by KPMG Canada found that 62 per cent of Canadian small- and medium-sized businesses plan to make vaccinations mandatory for employees.

“The large organizations like large government departments and banks have made this move quickly,” Norm Keith, a partner in employment and labour law at KPMG Law LLP, said in an interview. “There’s been a great deal of increased comfort for employers to do the mandatory policy because government is mandating it.”

The banks’ new vaccination policies set a common deadline of Oct. 31 for employees to get two doses of approved vaccines as companies make plans to gradually bring remote workers back to offices. On average, banks are expecting employees will work two to four days a week at offices, keeping some flexibility to work from home on other days.

Starting Nov. 1, “full vaccination of an approved COVID-19 vaccine will be a requirement for all TD colleagues entering the workplace,” Mr. Lalonde said in his company memo. Similarly, CIBC “will be requiring employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 31,” wrote chief human resources officer Sandy Sharman, on an internal company blog.

“You’ve likely read that leading global organizations and many governments have been moving in this direction and our intention is to follow suit in regions where we can, including in Canada and the United States,” Ms. Sharman said, adding: “If you haven’t yet been vaccinated and are able, now is the time.”

In similar memos, Barbara Mason, Scotiabank’s chief human resources officer, said the bank is “moving in the direction of making vaccinations mandatory for all Canadian-based employees, and contractors, later in the fall.” And Ms. Malone at BMO announced a new requirement that “all North American employees and contractors eligible for vaccination get their shots,” likely by Oct. 31.

“While the choice to become vaccinated is an individual one, we all have a responsibility to each other,” Ms. Mason said in Scotiabank’s memo.

The next step is requiring employees to attest that they are vaccinated, though no bank plans to require proof. TD employees will be asked to register their vaccination status by Sept. 30, and anyone who is not fully vaccinated by Nov. 1 must undergo mandatory rapid testing, wear a mask at all times at work and complete a “learning module” about the benefits of vaccination.

BMO employees must complete a vaccination survey by Sept. 8. Any staff who are still unvaccinated in November will be required to complete twice-weekly COVID-19 testing, “and comply with alternative health and safety measures to enter a BMO location,” Ms. Malone wrote in her memo.

Other banks including RBC have not offered a rapid testing alternative, but promised to make reasonable accommodations for staff who are unable to receive a vaccine.

Earlier this week, insurance company Sun Life Financial Inc. announced that it will require full vaccination for staff returning to offices in three major cities as part of a voluntary pilot project this fall. But other large employers have yet to decide whether to follow suit.

Rogers Communications Inc. spokesperson Andrew Garas said in an e-mail that the federally regulated telecommunications giant is “continuing to build a thoughtful and phased return to office plan” and “working closely with governments and health officials.”

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