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Employers can't force workers to get vaccine: Expert

Workers can refuse the vaccine but employers have options to protect the workplace
vaccine
(File)

With face masks becoming the norm in many Ontario workplaces, will it be long before COVID-19 vaccines will also become the accepted norm at work?

Sure you can say you don't like vaccines for many reasons, but do your personal feelings count against the rights of other workers to carry on in a safe workplace confident they are free from disease? 

Those are the sorts of questions that Hope McManus has to deal with as the head of Health and Safety at the Peninsula Canada human resources consulting firm in Toronto that specializes in health and safety.

One question is whether getting the COVID-19 vaccine will mean that masking and physical distancing will no longer be necessary.

"It will be some time before the majority of the population is vaccinated and restrictions are relaxed. For best results in containing and preventing the spread of the virus, vaccines must be used in conjunction with other health and safety measures. Social distancing, face masks, capacity limits, protective barriers and hygiene practices are requirements that employers should continue enforcing in their workplaces even as workers start getting vaccinated," McManus said in an emailed news release.

Another vaccine-related question is whether employers can require their workers to get the vaccine. The answer was no. 

"Employers cannot make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for workers, however they can encourage their workers to get it. It is unlikely that the government will make the vaccine mandatory due to human and civil rights concerns. Employees may not be able to get the vaccine for health or religious reasons. If an employer pressures an employee to get the vaccine they run the risk of being accused of discrimination, particularly if the worker experiences serious side effects as a result," McManus advised.

The follow-up question is whether employers can ban unvaccinated employees from the workplace. The answer was more complex. 

"Generally, employers cannot ban employees from entering the workplace. However, employers have a duty to provide a healthy and safe work environment. If risk in the workplace is high and the levels of community spread of COVID-19 are high, employers may ask unvaccinated workers to go on leave. Once restrictions are lifted and the risks are not as great, employers would have a hard time justifying this decision," McManus revealed. 

"Additionally, employers cannot terminate staff for refusing to get the vaccine. If the employee has been terminated for refusing the vaccine, the employee may bring forward a human rights claim," McManus said in the email. 

Then there is the question of what an employer can do to protect the workplace. McManus said this is a relevant question because not all workers will have the vaccine.

"In this case, employers must ensure that they continue to follow public health guidelines on social distancing, wearing masks and maintaining respiratory and hand hygiene. If it is possible, employers can also allow unvaccinated staff to work remotely," McManus advised.

"To further protect the workplace, employers should continue with workplace sanitization procedures, staff screening and contact tracing. To ensure that workers stay home when they have symptoms of illness, employers can also consider providing paid sick leave." 

McManus said employers can also be pro-active if they want to encourage their workers to buy into the program. 

"Workplaces that want staff to get the vaccine should conduct run-through vaccination courses on how the vaccine works, its safety, who is able to take it, the vaccination process and what happens after. If employers do set up vaccination clinics in their workplace, they must ensure that workers complete the vaccination process correctly. This means tracking the vaccine brand, the timing of the first dose and ensuring workers get the second dose on time," she advised. 

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com, covering health care in Northern Ontario. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the federal government.