Vaughn Palmer: Clarify legality of vaccine orders so small businesses can join mandate rush

Opinion: Small businesses and non-profits need assurances they won’t face bankrupting lawsuit if they order staff to get vaccinated

Article content

VICTORIA — When the week began, broad get-vaccinated mandates were relatively rare in B.C. workplaces.

Advertisement

Article content

Then, on Tuesday morning, the 30,000-strong provincial public service was told to get vaccinated by Nov. 22

In the afternoon, the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, brought down the hammer on staff in long-term care. Get a first dose of vaccine by the end of the Thanksgiving weekend or be placed on “unpaid” leave. A similar mandate was said to be coming soon for acute and community health care.

Henry also urged mandatory vaccination at Site C and other work camps in the pandemic-stressed Northern Health Region.

Next day, privately owned LNG Canada declared a vaccine mandate for its employees. The company urged the same for contractors on its LNG terminal under construction at Kitimat.

The largest provincial crown corporation, B.C. Hydro, weighed in Thursday. The announcement expanded on Henry’s suggestion, mandating vaccines for everyone working at Site C, for other Hydro contractors and for the utility’s more than 6,000 in-house employees.

Advertisement

Article content

B.C. Ferries acknowledged, after some confusion, that its workforce was covered by the vaccine mandate for federally regulated transportation companies.

Joining the bandwagon on Friday were TransLink and ICBC. Other provincial Crown corporations and agencies have been getting strong hints from Victoria and are expected to climb aboard soon. Deadlines and details may vary. But the common message is “get vaccinated or else.”

Also striking was the way public sector unions began falling in line.

The BCGEU, representing unionized public servants, supported “vaccines for all who are able,” despite not being consulted in advance about the government edict.

“The government indicated that the policy related to mandatory vaccinations has yet to be developed,” the union advised its members this week, adding it hopes to see details before Nov. 1.

Advertisement

Article content

“Until (then), we may not be able to answer some of the very legitimate questions members may have about the implications of this new government policy.”

In the interim, the union advised members that the grounds for refusing vaccination, medical or otherwise, were very limited. “A personal desire not to get vaccinated,” is not one of them.

Public servants were warned as well that if they choose not to get vaccinated, “your employer will most likely be able to place you on an unpaid leave while COVID-19 continues to be a hazard to public health.”

While the BCGEU followed in the wake of a clear direction from the government, unions in the K-12 education sector led the way on vaccine mandates.

CUPE, representing support staff, was out first.

Advertisement

Article content

Then came Thursday’s statement from the B.C. Teachers’ Federation president, Teri Mooring. “The BCTF supports provincial mandatory vaccines in the K-12 system for school staff and volunteers,” she said. “Please get vaccinated.”

She also cautioned teachers that as with vaccine mandates in other sectors, “there could be consequences (and) any exemptions will likely be extremely limited.”

The BCTF action was prompted by the NDP’s hesitation in imposing a provincewide mandate, instead leaving implementation to the 60 school districts in their capacity as employers.

“At this point I am very concerned that a vaccine mandate could be implemented district-by-district, employer-by-employer,” said Mooring. “That’s the wrong approach. Any vaccine mandate would need to be provincially implemented and done equitably. We can’t have unequal treatment of workers in the public education system.”

Advertisement

Article content

Earlier in the day, Premier John Horgan had reaffirmed the patchwork approach that would stick school boards and trustees with the responsibility for vaccine mandates.

“They have a responsibility to their employees, first and foremost,” said Horgan, disregarding that most boards and trustees don’t want a responsibility best left to the provincial health officer.

“ I would suggest that they can educate themselves with a simple phone call to get the details and data that they need to make informed decisions.”

Most likely, the buck-passing premier is waiting for Dr. Bonnie Henry to issue a provincewide order.

The provincial health officer might be waiting, in turn, for more evidence from contact-tracing that schools are a source (as opposed to a recipient) of COVID-19 spread within their communities.

Advertisement

Article content

But for all the signals coming from the major players in the public sector, I was struck by a note from a small business about why he and other private sector employers are reluctant to bring in vaccine mandates.

“Who will protect us against a wrongful dismissal lawsuit if we enforce vaccines as mandatory in the workplace? Against the employment lawyers who are champing at the bit to sue the heck out of the employers?”

Likewise, I heard about a medical practitioner who is trying to decide what to do with a staffer who is resolutely anti-vaccination. Why not fire her? He’s afraid she will turn herself into a cause célèbre among the anti-vaxxers, launch a Go Fund Me page, and shoulder him with tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills to make the firing stick.

I expect the provincial government has myriad legal opinions to back up the enforceability of vaccine mandates in a pandemic.

It strikes me that the province could help the vaccination drive by providing those publicly funded opinions, free, to small and medium-sized businesses and non-profits.

There are likely many operators inclined to follow the government lead in bringing in vaccination mandates to defend health and safety in their workplaces.

They just want assurances that they won’t be bankrupted in the process.

vpalmer@postmedia.com

Advertisement

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

This website uses cookies and asks your personal data to enhance your browsing experience.