Employers debate whether to make vaccination a condition of employment

While some businesses have told employees they’ll need to be fully vaccinated if they want to keep working, other workplaces say high vaccination rates make a mandate unnecessary.

When B.C. announced the vaccine card, which comes into effect Sept. 13, officials said it would apply to customers of many non-essential businesses, but not to employees, leaving employers to determine their own rules. More details about the card are to be announced today.

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Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said the card does not focus on workers because the relationship between employers and employees is different than between a business and a customer.

The province left the door open for businesses to bring in their own rules, advising they would “be responsible for doing their own due diligence.”

The Victoria Pub Company decided to implement a vaccine policy for its staff ahead of the vaccine card announcement, telling 300 employees in August they would need to be vaccinated with one shot by Sept. 3 and two at the latest by Oct. 18.

“We have a duty to protect our employees, and so part of that duty to protect our employees is to protect them against things like the spread of COVID,” said human resources manager Dylan Hagreen.

Hagreen said the company wants to do what it can do mitigate a fourth-wave shutdown for the “fragile” hospitality industry, and it sees mandatory vaccinations for staff as a way to reduce the risk of closures.

The company will consider exemptions on a case-by-case basis, she said.

Reaction to the policy has been positive, Hagreen said. About 95 per cent of the staff had a first shot already and many are happy to know their co-workers, with whom they’re often shoulder-to-shoulder, will be vaccinated, he said.

Hagreen said the company sought legal advice before bringing in the policy, and he acknowledges it’s uncharted territory. “It’s all untested at the moment,” he said.

Labour lawyer Marcia McNeil, said there’s a lot of uncertainty for employers wondering whether they can or should bring in a vaccination policy for employees. They have to balance competing interests of privacy rights, human rights for those with legitimate reasons why they can’t be vaccinated and the duty to provide a safe working environment, McNeil said.

However, the province’s vaccine card may make it less important for employers to grapple with the issue, as it provides incentive for those hesitating to get the shot, she said. “The more there are public orders mandating vaccines, the less need there is for employers to mandate.”

Bruce Williams, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, said there doesn’t seem to be major concern about mandating vaccines for staff among employers in the region, pointing to high vaccination rates as a reason.

“We have some of the highest rates of fully protected people in the province so many workplaces, including the Chamber, have achieved full vaccination without making a requirement for employment,” he said by email.

As of Friday, 84.8% of eligible people 12 and older in B.C. have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 77.1% have received both.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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