In Canada, about a quarter of the general population have rolled up their sleeves to get at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, and for months, officials at all levels of government have strongly encouraged Canadians to get the shot, but there is no law mandating it.
So, what are the rules when it comes to your workplace? Can your employer mandate you to get the vaccine? The simple answer is yes, but there can also be exceptions.
Employers may set additional requirements as conditions of employment as they deem appropriate, according to Alberta Health.
Puneet Tiwari is a human resources lawyer with consulting firm Peninsula Canada in Toronto, and said this is unprecedented territory, but employers are legally allowed to require it. He compares the situation to some employers requiring proof of sickness for time off.
“It’s not that different from you being sick in the workplace and your employer asking for a sick note. It’s kind of the same thought process,” Tiwari said.
“This is a hot topic right now and in some circumstances, employers can ask that their employees be vaccinated.
“It really depends on what kind of industry they’re in, and that it’s a bonafide requirement of the position, or if there’s a workplace policy stating that vaccinations are a requirement.
“Can an employer, grab your arm and stick a needle in it? Absolutely not.”
Tiwari said employers have the difficult position of balancing the need to keep their space safe, for both employees and visitors or clients, but said those employers may also have to make concessions for some.
“They need to balance that with the human rights of their employees and if they require an accommodation,” he said. “Some (may) have different health risks or religious beliefs, where they may not be allowed to be vaccinated.”
Tiwari is advising all employers to have a separate workplace policy on vaccines that explains what’s required to keep a safe workplace and ensure others are safe.
“They need to put this in a policy and ensure everyone is being treated equally.”
While the rules are up to the employer, some large organizations are choosing not to implement a mandatory vaccine requirement.
Like the government, Alberta Health Services told Global News there is no vaccine mandate for frontline staff, but immunization is strongly recommended. The health authority said an overwhelming majority of staff are choosing to get their shot, with more than 62,000 health-care workers getting immunized.
“A worker’s immunization status will not affect any workplace considerations. Vaccinated workers will still have the same PPE requirements, exposure criteria, isolation and quarantine requirements and testing requirements as an unvaccinated worker,” read a statement from spokesperson James Wood.
Anyone declining the vaccine will not be impacted negatively nor will the decision change their ability to work in outbreak settings, he said.
“This change from normal practice is due to the fact that not all of the workforce has yet had the opportunity to be immunized and that the COVID-19 vaccine is not yet widely available in the community,” Wood said, adding that as supply increases, AHS will reassess that policy.
Other organizations, like the Brenda Strafford Foundation (BSF), have also taken a voluntary approach to immunization. While the BSF strongly encourages and expects those who are eligible to get the vaccine, the decision remains up to the staff member.
However, the policy differs for all newly hired employees and for those going into any care facility currently in outbreak status.
“BSF has also implemented a policy that may restrict employees from working during an outbreak based on their immunization status and risk assessment of the outbreak,” read a statement from spokesperson Julie Arnold.
Arnold said the organization is “proud to have achieved among the highest vaccination rates in both residents and staff throughout the province at our sites.”