Some Canadian employers are telling staff they must be vaccinated to return to work and others are considering doing the same, as the COVID-19 Delta variant rips through unvaccinated populations and Ottawa contemplates mandatory vaccinations for federally regulated industries.
In the Toronto area, Seneca College, law firm Bales Beall LLP, mortgage platform Pinch Financial and accounting firm Crowe Soberman Associates are requiring staff to be fully vaccinated to enter their physical work space. Seneca’s policy applies to all staff, contractors, students and visitors, including parents visiting their kids on campus.
Other postsecondary institutions, such as the University of Toronto and Carleton University, are requiring vaccinations for participants in activities such as varsity sports.
Most employers in Canada are provincially regulated, but in some large sectors, including banking, airlines and telecommunications, Ottawa sets the rules.
In the United States, which has different employment laws than those in Canada, large companies such as United Airlines Inc., Tyson Foods Inc., Walt Disney Corp. and Microsoft Corp. require employees to be vaccinated or risk being fired.
In Canada, however, most employers are waiting to see if the federal or provincial governments pass laws that require workers be inoculated against the deadly virus, and are instead encouraging staff to get their shots.
Many employers have concerns about running afoul of labour, privacy and human rights laws, and are taking different approaches. This is creating a messy patchwork of requirements and sowing confusion among workers and customers.
“It’s certainly a dilemma for employers. I would imagine most employers would prefer that their workers be vaccinated,” said Sara Slinn, Osgoode Hall Law School’s associate dean.
Mandatory vaccines for federally regulated sectors would require legislative changes, she said, because requiring employees to take a vaccine to go to work amounts to a new condition of employment. In a unionized environment, this would be a violation of the collective agreement. In a non-union workplace, excluding an employee based on a new rule could form the basis for a claim of constructive dismissal.
“The employer can’t just unilaterally change the terms and conditions of employment,” Ms. Slinn said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday he is considering requiring federal government staff to be vaccinated, and could pass a law to make the shots mandatory for employees who work in industries regulated by Ottawa.
Banks declined to comment directly on Mr. Trudeau’s statement, except to repeat previous statements about encouraging their employees to get vaccinated. However, Porter Airlines is debating whether to require its 1,400 pilots, flight attendants and other employees to be vaccinated. “It is among a number of things being considered by our health and safety committees at the moment,” said Brad Cicero, a Porter spokesman.
Real estate developer Dream Office REIT is also considering mandatory vaccines. “We are prepared to take the risk to allow the safety of our staff, but we don’t need to make that decision now and we hope that by Labour Day, there will be more clarity,” said Dream chief executive officer Michael Cooper.
For Seneca College, which has about 4,000 employees and 30,000 students, the threat of the virus trumps any risk of legal challenges under provincial or federal law. Seneca president David Agnew said the college consulted legal and medical experts and concluded a vaccine mandate was essential. “It defies logic as to why you would not require vaccines for a virus that is still killing people,” he said.
Mr. Agnew is not worried about getting sued, and said it is unlikely any lawsuit would hold up in court.
“I am very confident that we will not be successfully challenged,” he said. “There are privacy laws and Charter issues. But at the end of the day, workplaces and people who run workplaces are responsible for making them safe. You cannot do that without taking measures like mandating vaccines.”
Bales Beall LLP, an estate and family law firm, also said it would take that risk of getting sued.
“This is a public-health crisis,” partner Kristine Anderson said. “Everyone is afraid they will get sued and we have to be brave in this kind of crisis and do the right thing.”
Ms. Anderson said the decision to mandate the vaccine was a “no brainer,” in order to ensure the firm’s workplace was safe for employees and clients. She said the partners recognized the firm could not fire someone immediately for cause for refusing to get vaccinated, but said it was prepared to terminate employees with severance if they do not comply.
COVID-19 cases are on the rise yet again after hitting a low in mid-July. In other countries such as Britain and the U.S., the Delta variant has coursed through unvaccinated populations and prompted businesses to take a harder line on vaccinations. In Canada, that is also starting to happen – and how employers act could help slow another devastating wave of cases.
“I wouldn’t allow an employee to carry a knife to the office. I can’t allow an employee to come in with a known contagion,” said Andrew Wells, founder and CEO of Pinch Financial.
Pinch’s current and new employees are required to be vaccinated. During the hiring process, Mr. Wells said he tells prospective employees: “Should you choose to accept this job, you will be required to be vaccinated by your start date.”
For Crowe Soberman Associates, the decision to only allow fully immunized staff in the office was obvious. Crowe chief operating officer Susan Hodkinson said she knew most of her employees were considering getting immunized, and the firm wanted to make the workspace safe for the majority of its staff.
“We thought the best way to make the majority comfortable was to say, ‘If you want to work in the office, you have to get the vaccine,” Ms. Hodkinson said.
At offices of Allied Properties REIT, a commercial landlord in cities across Canada, vaccinations are required. “In order to come into the office, you have to receive your first vaccination,” Allied CEO Michael Emory has said.
Other businesses are simply hoping their staff will get vaccinated. At La Condesa restaurant in Prince Edward County in Ontario, all staff have chosen to get fully vaccinated. But that was not a requirement. “Our industry is very high risk so I’m happy to hear all of us at Condesa are on the same page,” owner Samantha Valdivia said.
Air Canada said it has set up vaccination clinics in Toronto and Montreal to help its employees get inoculated. “We strongly encourage our employees to get vaccinated for their own well-being,” said Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick.
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