Losing Your Livelihood for Refusing a Vaccine
When it comes to vaccine mandates, how far is too far?
By Ian DeWaard, Ontario Director
Many Canadians are on the verge of losing their jobs because of their vaccination status. How far is too far when it comes to forcing vaccination, and are we even allowed to ask that question in today’s polarized environment?
Without doubt, vaccinations are having a huge impact on curbing COVID-19 infection and transmission. And yet many eligible Canadians have elected to remain unvaccinated for a variety of reasons.
In late summer, as vaccine rates were stagnating, provinces began using various incentives and restrictions to encourage vaccination. These included paid time off from work to get a shot, the introduction of vaccine passports, and restricting access to public places and nonessential services like restaurants and theatres. These measures caused a surge in daily vaccination rates in late August and September.
In recent weeks we've seen a move to harsher measures. In an effort to further motivate the vaccine hesitant, a wave of employers have rolled out workplace vaccination policies that will result in termination of employment for the unvaccinated.
Is this reasonable? Is this right?
After 19 months of facing this pandemic, it's no surprise that anxiety is high and that tempers fly. We've been shaken by deaths in our community, our mobility has been restricted, and our access to services, family, and social circles has been greatly impeded. We've lost loved ones and been deprived of the chance to mourn those losses in the fellowship and company of friends and families.
But we also need to carefully examine if that fear and anger may be clouding our collective judgement.
For many it seems that termination of employment is a just consequence. “Those people deserve it,” they say.
This perspective accepts that employment protections against summary dismissal, which have been enshrined in collective agreements, employment codes, and common law for decades, should be set aside because of the threat this virus presents.
Is it okay to treat someone’s employment like a nonessential service? As trivial as a trip to the mall or the theatre?
The impact of job loss on even eight or ten percent of Canadian workers will be devastating for those individuals, for Canada’s social safety nets, and for the Canadian economy. And will the additional safety that's achieved by terminating the vaccine hesitant achieve a measurable impact in curbing the worst of this virus that couldn't be achieved by other measures?
While supporting vaccine mandate policies, CLAC has drawn a line in the sand when these policies lead to termination of employment. For a host of reasons, we claim that such policies go too far.
The grievances are mounting. What arbitrators and the courts will do with such challenges is not clear—we've never faced these kinds of policies before and on such a widespread basis.
Despite the lack of clear guidance in law, employers have been emboldened by many large mainstream unions that have signalled they won’t push back against terminations. A leader at one large Canadian union was quoted in the Toronto Star as saying that when his members get fired, they can stay fired, as far as he is concerned.
No doubt, a federal government that says it will place unvaccinated employees who work exclusively from home on unpaid leave has also signalled its support for drastic measures.
It is appropriate and necessary in some highly safety-sensitive environments to direct unvaccinated employees to remain home during this pandemic, and in the future during infection waves or acute outbreaks. We support such interim and temporary measures in long term care homes and hospitals.
But in many other work environments, routine antigen testing (which is low cost and easily accessible) enhanced personal protective equipment (PPE) and screening are reasonable alternatives. In fact, routine testing is likely a more effective tool at curbing the spread of a virus that is transmissible by asymptomatic carriers, who may or may not be vaccinated.
The next several months may prove to be Canada's most challenging during this pandemic. Workplace communities will face acrimonious litigation, workers will be pitted against each other, and workplace communities that were already starved of workers will be further frustrated by an even more acute worker shortage.
It's difficult from this vantage point to see a light at the end of this tunnel, but knowing that this journey will be long and difficult serves to strengthen our resolve as a union. Polling data that CLAC conducted in 2021 demonstrates that CLAC members support reasonable limits on the extent to which employers may go to encourage vaccination.
We stand together as union members in this effort to ensure that a proper balance is struck between workplace safety, the public good, and worker protections.