The City of Calgary has been forced to take an unexpected step back with its employee COVID-19 vaccination policy, according to Mayor Jyoti Gondek.
Gondek told reporters Wednesday that the city would continue to offer free at-home testing kits for its unvaccinated employees who opted into the testing program.
Originally, the policy stated that those unvaccinated employees would need to start paying for those tests out of their own pockets on Dec. 2.
Under the COVID-19 employee vaccination policy, all City of Calgary employees must have two doses of the vaccine or provide a negative test result regularly to continue their duties. Any employee who refuses either option would be placed on leave without pay.
Gondek said 91.5 per cent of city employees are immunized against COVID-19, which is up from 85 per cent following the original Nov. 1 deadline for employees to provide their vaccination status.
According to Gondek, the City of Calgary was forced to make the change to the policy “thanks to the Calgary Police Service” after learning the service would continue to supply free testing kits for its employees.
“Now instead of focusing on the good results we got by holding people accountable to get vaccinated, we’ve been held ransom,” Gondek said. “The city has now agreed that it will be part of our policy to continue paying for testing if people are not fully vaccinated.”
She said city manager David Duckworth has been put into a “compromising position” with unions that represent other city workers who caught wind of the situation and claimed it was unfair.
“Let’s talk about northeast Calgary: 99 per cent vaccination rates. Those folks did their part,” Gondek said. “You’re telling me there’s a few people, a very small percentage of the population, that don’t want to do anything, and we’ll reward them by paying for their testing? Unacceptable.”
However, CPS said Wednesday that its unvaccinated employees would need to pay for their own testing beginning Wednesday, but free rapid tests are on the way for its employees.
“As part of the government’s rapid testing program, essential services were given the opportunity to apply for free kits until March 2022,” a CPS spokesperson said in a statement. “We are still waiting for these kits and until they arrive, members who are not vaccinated will continue to pay for rapid testing kits out of their own pocket.”
CPS told Global News that it is expecting about 9,100 test kits until the end of March and it is “incorrect” that their policy changed.
According to a presentation from senior staff at Tuesday’s Calgary Police Commission meeting, 92 per cent of CPS staff are fully vaccinated, with one per cent partially vaccinated. CPS Deputy Chief Raj Gill told the commission that the remainder of CPS staff has opted into the rapid testing program.
Gill told the Calgary Police Commission that rapid testing would remain an option for the “foreseeable future” as the pandemic progresses.
Meanwhile, other unions representing City of Calgary employees are pleased with the city’s move to continue to provide free testing kits for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated employees.
Mike Mahar, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 583, said forcing city employees to pay for test kits when they are being provided by the province and federal government “didn’t make any sense,” adding access to tests would make for higher compliance rates.
“It seemed punitive for those that, for whatever reason, could not fully vaccinate, and it just over-complicated things,” Mahar told Global News. “Why would you want to impose a penalty on somebody when the easier the testing is, the more compliance you’re going to have?”
The City of Calgary confirmed that a little more than 500 city employees are currently registered for the testing program, which has dropped significantly from the approximately 2,000 city employees who were expected to take part in rapid testing at the beginning of November.
According to Christopher Collier, director of environment and safety management at the City of Calgary, the group of employees registered in the testing program either have a medical or religious exemption from getting the vaccine or are choosing not to receive the shot.
Collier told Global News the city still has a significant supply of COVID-19 tests to offer its employees that will last well into 2022.
“For those folks that have a valid exemption, medical or religious exemption, their option is only to test, so we wanted to make sure that we accommodated that,” Coller said.
But there is concern from experts that providing the testing kits for free is a “watering down” of the vaccine mandates that were imposed to incentivize getting immunized against COVID-19.
“I think where the employer is the one paying the for the cost of tests, then employees have an incentive to opt into the testing program as opposed to being vaccinated,” said Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor in the faculty of law at the Cumming School of Medicine. “That tends to undercut the employer’s mandate.”
Collier said the City of Calgary never set out to “force” mandatory vaccinations but rather make a safe workplace, and the testing program is “very much in tune with that.”
Gondek remains firm in her stance and is urging everyone to get vaccinated.
“We can prevent variants like we’re seeing if we all just get vaccinated,” she said. “For those people who don’t wish to, there should be consequences.”
– With files from Global News’ Adam Toy