Six weeks from now, any employee of the Town of Banff who hasn’t gotten their COVID-19 vaccine will be out of a job, due to a new administrative policy instated by the municipality.
Vaccines are now mandatory for municipal staff in the mountain town, a decision that acting town manager Darren Enns said was made to ensure the safety of employees and the community.
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“Ultimately, the vast majority of our staff are already vaccinated. And we’re thrilled to see that,” Enns said.
“For the few that choose not to be vaccinated, we’ll ultimately have to part ways.”
As of Wednesday, Banff had the highest rate of active cases per capita in Alberta.
“The current surge in cases certainly amplified the importance of this,” Enns said. “Ultimately it’s the right long-term move to make, as well.”
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When employee Lauren Earle found out about the new policy she said she cried, as she hasn’t been vaccinated and doesn’t plan to get the shot.
“When I signed my current contract, we didn’t have any warning that this was in the works, even though it was being discussed,” she told Global News.
“Essentially, those of us that choose not to have an experimental treatment currently, whether that changes in the future, are essentially being forced out of our jobs.”
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Earle said she’s worked for the Town of Banff for 18 months, through the pandemic, and signed her most recent contract just three weeks ago.
Earle said she’s written to the town manager and is waiting for more detailed responses to her questions around the policy, but the mandate has her questioning whether she will stay working for the town regardless of the policy details.
“My next step — it’s very up in the air. It’s hard to decide because I do like working for the town, I would prefer to carry on working for the town,” she said.
“But this is such a difference of opinions and it feels very unfair towards us. So it’s hard to see continuing with an employer that would do this to you.”
Enns said the town does have exemptions built into its policy, including if someone can’t get the vaccine for a religious or health-related reason.
He also said the town is doing everything it can to incentivize staff who haven’t gotten their shot yet, including providing them with accurate information and encouraging them to speak with a doctor about their concerns.
The town also offered fully vaccinated employees a gift card for any local business in Banff, or to have the funds from a gift card be allocated to a charity of their choosing.
Earle said roughly 20 per cent of town employees are unvaccinated, however, Town of Banff communications and marketing director Jason Darrah told Global News that of the 300 people the town employs, “about five people indicate they do not want to have the vaccine and will consider terminating their employment.”
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“We have been consulting with staff through the pandemic in an open and transparent way,” Darrah said.
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“We have had weekly all-staff meetings via Zoom through all of 2020 and continued with regular virtual meetings and newsletters to staff, as well as team meetings through 2021, and we have always been consulting on the measures in place and those being considered, including the requirement for employees to be vaccinated.”
Darrah said it was “unfortunate” that an employee was choosing not to get the vaccine, “which is a condition of employment and has been proven by abundant medical evidence to be safe and effective at preventing serious illness and death due to COVID.”
Mandate challenge ‘pretty much guaranteed’
While it is legal for a public organization, like a municipal or provincial government, to require employees to be vaccinated, it doesn’t mean the policy won’t be met with a constitutional challenge.
“I think it’s pretty much guaranteed there will be charter challenges,” employment lawyer Lluc Cerda said, adding a vaccine is “not a small intrusion on people’s security.”
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Cerda said if employers intend to fire employees who choose not to get the mandated vaccine, they are treading into the territory of discriminatory termination.
“If the termination is found to be discriminatory, this person might be reinstated into the workplace with back pay,” he said.
“Even if it’s not discriminatory, which is unlikely, the employer probably doesn’t have just cause to terminate this person… for not taking a vaccine.”
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Cerda said it’s a bit different for private businesses, which are not governed by the Charter, and may have more flexibility to implement policies like a vaccine mandate.
However, he said businesses that impose such a policy would be vulnerable to legal implications.
“The COVID issue is very, very fluid and it will be challenging for most employers to show that there is such a dire need for vaccine policies that they can force their employees to do it on threat of termination,” Cerda said.
“There could be discriminatory implications, there could be severance package implications which could result in a lot of legal exposure for the private businesses in Alberta.”
What are Calgary’s plans?
It remains unclear if the City of Calgary will follow Banff in mandating vaccines for civic employees.
At more than 13,000 employees, the city is one of the largest employers in Calgary.
City officials did not respond to Global News’ requests for comment on the issue on Wednesday.
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 583, the union representing the city’s transit workers, said that it’s not in favour of mandating the shot.
“I’m heavily in favor of vaccines and getting vaccinated and really do hope that the vast majority of people do,” president Mike Mahar told Global News. “Although I hope it gets a real high saturation rate. We would have to protect the interests of those within our bargaining unit who chose not to.”
After seven weeks with no new COVID-19 cases amongst transit workers, Mahar said four were reported within the last week.
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After the deaths of two employees due to the virus, Mahar said vaccine uptake amongst transit workers was high.
“We’ve been encouraging everybody as the vaccine became more available,” Mahar said. “Quite frankly, the feedback was that most people didn’t need encouragement. They were anxious to get it and chomping at the bit to get it.”
Mahar said he would rather see the city and province focus efforts on other health measures like masking, isolation and testing.
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Meanwhile, Calgary’s police chief Mark Neufeld said the service is in ongoing discussions with the City of Calgary and Calgary Emergency Management Agency around management of the pandemic.
He said police service staff have been encouraged to get the vaccine and he estimates the uptake is average compared to the general population.
“As we see learning institutions working together on similar approaches, I think you’ll see the same thing happening within policing because the context with policing is the same,” Neufeld said on Global News Morning.
“As much as there’s been a bit of patchwork around this for policing, because of that similar context, we’ll want to see if we can be aligned as much as we possibly can.”
The Town of Okotoks confirmed to Global News that it would not be making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for its town employees.
— With files from Lauren Pullen, Global News
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