B.C. is dropping its COVID vaccine requirement for public service workers as of April 3, although it will remain for people working in health-care facilities.
The province says the decision to rescind the policy was based on the high level of vaccination among public-service employees — about 98 to 99 per cent — and the current state of the pandemic.
A total of 314 employees were terminated for non-compliance, while another 236 are on unpaid leave or have — or are seeking — an approved accommodation. Those on administrative leave due to non-compliance will be allowed to return, according to the province. The move comes as the public service struggles to hire enough people to fill job openings.
The 36,000-member-strong public service includes everyone from administrative workers to corrections officers, wildfire fighters, and liquor and cannabis retail staff.
Shannon Salter, deputy minister to the premier and head of the public service, said in a letter to employees Friday that while other jurisdictions have already lifted their proof-of-vaccination policies, the B.C. Public Service “took a cautious approach.”
The public service will also amend its occupational health and safety policy to remove the requirement for contractors and non-employees to be vaccinated to enter public-service workplaces.
“I assure you we wouldn’t take this step if we weren’t confident that our workplaces will remain safe without the policy in place,” Salter said.
Under provincial health officer orders, those working in health-care settings from hospitals and clinics to long-term care homes — the highest-risk settings where the most vulnerable live — must still provide proof of vaccination.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said Friday that requirement is unlikely to ever be rescinded.
“I don’t expect that to be something that will change, and we’re looking at what does that mean in terms of policies and regulations within health care,” said Henry.
Victoria lawyer Umar Sheikh of Sheikh Law, who represents about 600 public service workers who were affected by the proof-of-vaccination requirement, said while he is pleased the mandate has finally been dropped, “the lasting damage done by the mandate and the incredible delay in making this decision requires rectification.”
Sheikh said the province knew its mandate process was ineffectual at stopping the spread of COVID-19 and “despite this they continued to cause harm to hundreds of employees,” many of whom left the public service or were terminated and “bankrupted by the government’s decisions.”
Sheikh said claims underway include a judicial review challenging the constitutionality of the mandate, wrongful-dismissal actions for non-union employees, and failure-to-represent actions against the B.C. General Employees’ Union with the B.C. Labour Relations Board.
Sheikh says government workers who lost or left their jobs as a result of the vaccine mandate must be offered their jobs “with back pay and full restitution for the damages they have incurred.”
In November 2021, the province made having two doses of vaccination against COVID-19 a condition of employment for B.C. public service employees. People who wouldn’t get vaccinated or wouldn’t disclose their vaccination status were put on unpaid leave.
The requirement was always intended as a temporary measure to help protect employees and the people they serve, according to the province.
The Opposition Liberals have been calling since the summer for the requirement to be rescinded, noting the mandate was never meant to be permanent. Last year, the federal government invited back workers who chose not to be vaccinated and were put on administrative leave without pay.
The province said the Public Service Agency “continues to encourage” all employees to remain up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations, including booster doses.