Mandatory vaccination unlikely for workplaces; focus will be on education

With the approval of a COVID-19 vaccine in Canada, employers could soon be navigating a tricky situation if staff choose not to be immunized.

The first doses of the newly approved Pfizer vaccine in B.C. will to go to front-line health and long-term care workers, while immunizations for the wider public are expected to be available in 2021.

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Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said last week there is no mandatory immunization in Canada, and she does not expect a COVID-19 vaccine to be any different. Instead, efforts will focus on educating the public on the safety and importance of being immunized, which means there will likely be people who refuse to be vaccinated, raising questions about how to keep shared work spaces safe.

Employment lawyers say employers will have to balance their obligation to provide a safe workplace with the rights of staff to forgo a vaccine.

Stephanie Cousineau, a lawyer at Kent Employment Law, said employers won’t be able to require staff members to be immunized. If employees choose not to receive a vaccine, they would likely have to continue following COVID-19 safety measures.

“For them, life would likely look the same as it did in the pre-vaccine COVID era. Those people might keep working from home, if that’s an option, or wearing personal protective equipment and social distancing — whatever was considered necessary to keep the workplace safe before,” Cousineau said.

It’s likely that public health officials will continue to recommend physical distancing, mask wearing and frequent hand washing for some time after vaccines are rolled out, so those who are vaccinated will probably also continue to follow their workplace’s existing safety plans, she said.

Greg Anctil, a labour and employment lawyer at Anctil Labour Law, said the availability of a vaccine opens the door for employees who do get the shot to question the safety of their workplaces if co-workers decline to be immunized.

“It really depends upon the circumstances of the workplace and what the underlying safety issues are with regard to how prevalent COVID is, or how risky the risk of transmission would be in that particular workplace,” he said.

Anctil said those claims would likely have to be evaluated by WorkSafeBC, and would depend on the type of work and the environment.

Hospitals are a particularly high-risk environment, but even there, it appears unlikely the vaccine will be required. Hospital workers are expected to get an annual flu shot and are required to report to employers whether they receive one, but they’re not disciplined if they don’t, said Mike Old, spokesman for the Hospital Employee’s Union, which represents more than 50,000 members in B.C.

Those who don’t get their annual shot are expected to wear a mask during flu season, Old said. During a flu outbreak in a hospital, those who aren’t immunized can be redeployed to other areas or sent home.

“This is a very different disease, so I’m not sure what the direction is going to be on this, whether it will be similar to the flu policy and outbreak policy or whether it will be different,” he said.

Old said the union expects vaccination rates among hospital workers to be high, because they’ve witnessed the impacts of the pandemic firsthand.

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