On the heels of the Federal government's recent announcement to suspend vaccination requirements for domestic and outbound travel, federally regulated transportation sectors and federal government employees (effective June 20, 2022), we have been receiving many questions from clients about their own policies. With that in mind, we thought it would be perfect timing to not only review the government's announcement, but also provide some insight to our readers who may be wondering if the time has come to amend or repeal vaccination requirements in the workplace.
Federal Government's Announcement
The news release begins with reference to the current vaccination rate of almost 90% of eligible Canadians, reiterates that vaccination is one of the most effective protective tools available, and reminds us that additional boosters may be necessary to maintain effectiveness. The release goes on to say that the suspension of the vaccine mandate reflects an improved public health situation in Canada, but that the COVID-19 virus continues to evolve and spread around the world.
As it relates to the Federal public service, the release announces that employees who were placed on leave of absence for failing to abide by the mandate would return to work, but that vaccinations and boosters remain "strongly encouraged". Moreover, similar requirements for crown corporations and supplier personnel accessing federal government workplaces would also be suspended. Finally, the government announced it would no longer pursue proposed regulations to the Canada Labour Code to make vaccination mandatory in all federally regulated workplaces.
Finally, the release makes clear that the Government will not hesitate to reinstitute vaccine mandates or other similar measures in accordance with the latest public health and scientific advice, particularly if the situation changes in the fall.
What does this mean for your workplace?
In reviewing the announcement, it is important to note that it applies to specified federally regulated workplaces only. For those workplaces, it Is characterized as a suspension, rather than a removal or repeal of the policy, suggesting it may be reinstituted. For the majority of employers in Ontario (and other provinces for that matter), this announcement should not be taken as a requirement or even a suggestion to remove vaccine mandates. Rather, employers in Ontario must be guided by the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which requires employers to take "every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection" of workers. This is the legal obligation that motivated many employers to institute policies in the first place, and it is the guiding principle to consider when it might be time to suspend, repeal or amend vaccine policies now in place.
While it is impossible to say when the right time to amend or repeal a vaccine policy might be, some important considerations include:
- Where your company operates – this includes not only the municipalities (which may have local public health guidance to rely on), but also the context (office, outdoors, warehouse etc). It may make sense to lift requirements for certain parts of your operation where other effective measures (PPE, social distancing etc.) are easy to implement.
- Consider any remaining policies of clients and partners – for example hospitals and long-term care homes likely do have strict vaccine mandates and protocols in place. Even if you are comfortable lifting mandates on your own premises, your policy may need to account for the policies of your clients if work is being performed on their premises.
- Maintain flexibility - throughout the pandemic employers have had to adjust to numerous and frequent changes to regulations. It is clear that the pandemic is not over, which means case counts could rise again in the face if new variants or changing seasons. Even if you decide now is the time to lift or amend your vaccine mandate entirely, it may be helpful to keep the amended policy active and specifically note that it is subject to change. If vaccine mandates are required in the future, you will already have a policy in place to build off of.
- Requirements for future employees – consider whether COVID vaccines will be required of new hires going forward. Some sectors (for example, healthcare and childcare) have long required vaccination from a number of viruses and diseases as a condition of hire. Maintaining a COVID vaccination requirement for new hires going forward may make sense in those industries, but for many others it may not be necessary.
- Consider employees currently on leave of absence – if you have unvaccinated employees on leave of absence under your current policy, consider how you plan to re-integrate these employees into your operation, provided they have not obtained new employment. In doing so, consider whether their vaccination status may inhibit their ability to perform work at client worksites, provide reasonable notice of return, and whether any additional training on other COVID protocols is necessary.
Given the nature of your operations, there may be additional considerations, but remember that the safety of workers is always the guiding principle.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.