It was a recent trip to a Blue Jays baseball game that drove home the need for workplace rules requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for Steve Titus.
“It was quite an exciting game but I felt a little uneasy coming into the crowd. There was no distancing,” he tells Global News. “They required masking but the vast majority of people were not in masks and you had no idea if anybody was vaccinated or not.”
Titus is the president and CEO of Aercoustics Engineering, a consultancy firm based in the Greater Toronto Area. The company, which has a staff of about 90 people, has issued a workplace vaccine mandate. Administered by the Human Resources department to ensure individual workers’ privacy, it stipulates that employees who set foot in the office or attend company events must provide proof of full vaccination.
“Looking at the broader context of the pandemic and now the Delta variant, we really felt that the first thing we had an obligation to do was protect our entire team,” says Titus.
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Big names in the U.S. have devised workplace vaccine requirements including Wal-Mart, Walt Disney, Netflix and Google’s parent company Alphabet. The list of entities requiring proof of vaccination is growing across Canada as well, as leaders in the private sector take the reins for their organizations rather than waiting to see what course of action politicians embark on.
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So far, that list includes the University of Toronto, Seneca College, UOttawa, Western University and Queen’s University, plus a handful of Bay Street accounting and law firms.
On Wednesday, the Winnipeg Jets announced that its home games would be sold “to full capacity” requiring all employees, event staff and guests to provide proof of full vaccination.
The federal government announced on Wednesday plans for a digital vaccine passport for international travel. Though it is designed for travel abroad, it will be up to individual provinces to decide how, and whether or not, to use the certificate.
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Among the provinces and territories, Quebec is the only jurisdiction with concrete plans to implement a vaccine passport, administered on a smartphone app, which is being tested to go live on Sept. 1. The premiers of Alberta and Ontario have both said that their province is not going down the vaccine-passport path.
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The relative lack of clarity on vaccination policy has spurred an increasing number of individual companies to design and implement their own workplace vaccination requirements.
As some politicians make announcements clarifying their stance either for, or against, a provincial passport system, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce says the chorus of support from businesses is growing louder and more unified.
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The list of business advocacy groups calling for a government-issued certificate includes the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, Toronto Region Board of Trade, Calgary Chamber of Commerce and the Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce.
“There’s a critical role for the federal government and provinces to make sure that whatever systems are being adopted are actually interoperable so that people don’t need 13 different apps on their phone with different vaccine passports,” says Mark Agnew, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of policy.
He says that in provinces where a vaccine passport won’t be implemented, officials should provide businesses that choose to create their own system with support in the form of technology.
“Even if a province decides not to go down the road of having a vaccine passport, it’s critical that they still provide the infrastructure and the tools for businesses who do want to have them for their specific business operation,” he says.
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A patchwork system with each firm coming up with their own strategy from scratch is costly, inefficient and raises privacy concerns, according to Agnew.
As some politicians ignore the growing chorus from Canada’s business community pushing for proof-of-vaccination systems to avoid future lockdowns, employment law experts say companies need to weigh the risk of not creating rules requiring vaccination in public settings.
The conversation surrounding the legal challenges associated with a workplace vaccine mandate has evolved, according to Nainesh Kotak, founder of Kotak Personal Injury Law.
He says that earlier in the pandemic, employers were cautious about workplace mask mandates and asking personal questions about worker’s health and travel activities, but now those things have been normalized. Kotak says there’s been a shift in considerations around the legal challenges and financial considerations for firms that opt for vaccine workplace policies.
“From a liability standpoint, from a practical business standpoint, you’re going to see certain businesses requiring proof of vaccine, particularly among their own employees because the cost of not doing so could mean the place of business is shut down,” says Kotak.
He says this will be particularly important for public venues such as sports stadiums and workplaces where employees can’t easily remain physically apart.
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Titus says he has been approached by other business leaders who want to know exactly how his firm designed its voluntary vaccine mandate. He says it was a decision they didn’t “take lightly” and made with input from legal and human resource experts.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s left to the private sector to lead the way,” Titus says. “I would really encourage our politicians to take a look at these things and lead with courage. Sometimes these decisions are hard to make.”
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