Civil servants who were placed on unpaid leave for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 will not be compensated for eight months of lost pay now that the vaccine mandates are being suspended, the federal government said in the face of union demands.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada has significantly ratcheted up its criticisms of the vaccine mandates in the past few months. But the government says it’s confident the vaccination requirements will stand up to scrutiny. PSAC, the country’s biggest public-sector union, argues that placing civil servants, who could have worked remotely, on unpaid leave was an abuse of management’s authority and the government should reimburse those people.
“They posed no health and safety threat in the workplace because they weren’t in the workplace,” president Chris Aylward said Wednesday.
The Canadian Association of Professional Employees, another federal public-service union, is also calling on Ottawa to reimburse the salaries of people who were put on unpaid leave. ”We will actively pursue justice for our members,” CAPE president Greg Phillips said in a statement.
The Liberals announced a suite of federal vaccine mandates just days before triggering a snap election last summer. On Tuesday, they announced they would suspend most of them, reserving the right to reimpose the mandates if Ottawa deems it necessary. The change means unvaccinated civil servants and members of the RCMP, who have been on unpaid leave since as early as November, can return to work on June 20.
As of May, less than 2 per cent of federal employees – 2,108 – were on leave without pay because of the vaccination rules, said Yentl Béliard-Joseph, a spokesperson for Treasury Board President Mona Fortier.
Mr. Aylward said Wednesday that the decision to suspend the mandates bolsters the argument that the mandates went too far in putting unvaccinated staff, who could work remotely, on unpaid leave.
In response, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc told reporters on Parliament Hill that the government would “absolutely not” compensate unvaccinated civil servants for their lost wages.
He provided no further comment, but Justice Minister David Lametti told reporters he is confident the vaccine-mandate rules are on “solid legal footing.”
When the vaccine mandates were made official in October, PSAC advised its members that there was a “strong possibility” the vaccination policies would withstand a legal challenge and highly recommended its members get vaccinated. And during the election, Mr. Aylward said his union supported vaccine requirements but was against disciplining people who refused the shots.
Since then, PSAC, CAPE and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) have filed grievances against the policy.
Before endorsing vaccine mandates last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opposed them, calling them divisive. He reversed his position and the Liberal’s vaccine mandates dominated debate on the campaign trail and plagued then-Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, who refused to disclose the vaccination status of his own candidates and opposed a blanket mandate.
Opposition to the mandates contributed to the blockades that jammed downtown Ottawa and snarled border crossings for several weeks in February.
On Wednesday, Mr. O’Toole said the divisions that Mr. Trudeau warned about came to pass, calling the mandate “one of the most divisive and politically motivated federal policy actions in Canadian history.” In a social-media post, he said the government ignored the duty to accommodate even though civil servants were working from home and he said he believes, “Unions will likely succeed in demands for retroactive pay.”
In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, Ms. Fortier said the government’s vaccination rules were a condition of employment and so there was no need to accommodate employees who refused to get vaccinated and didn’t have a valid exemption.
Ms. Fortier is in the midst of contract talks with PSAC, which have been at an impasse since the union rejected the government’s proposed cost of living increase, which averaged 1.7 per cent annually for three years. That proposal is well below inflation – which was running at an annual rate of 6.8 per cent in April. The union filed for conciliation in May and is asking for a 4.5-per-cent annual increase in salaries, Mr. Aylward said.
The Treasury Board President said a costing of all of the union’s asks, including changes to benefits, would amount to a 14-per-cent annual increase. Mr. Aylward didn’t dispute that number but said the union’s priority is the 4.5-per-cent annual wage increase and it would consider dropping some of the other requests.
He said PSAC also wants the right to work from home added to the collective agreement so that members have the option to work remotely as long as it aligns with their work duties. Ms. Fortier said any determinations about remote work should be the purview of the employer.
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