To mandate vaccines or not mandate vaccines.
That was the question discussed by a panel of legal, health and safety, and human resource experts during a virtual event hosted by the Vancouver Regional Construction Association (VRCA) recently.
“There’s a lot of different things that you are going to need to consider,” said Melanie Vipond, a partner with law firm Gall Legge Grant Zwack LLP and an expert in labour issues. “Number one is you have to think about whether you have a compelling reason to implement a mandatory vaccine policy. It’s not about if another company did it, if the B.C. or federal government did it — it’s if it makes sense for you and your company.”
She said this could be because your clients require those onsite to have vaccinations, you want to have a certain reputation or the region you do business in has high infection rates. Whatever the case may be, Vipond urged companies to make sure they have some reasoning behind a vaccine policy before implementing it so that they can be prepared to defend it if it’s challenged.
“You have an obligation to ensure the safety of people onsite,” said Vipond. “COVID is a big health and safety risk. You have to keep that in the back of your mind always.”
She advised those considering a vaccine policy to also have a clear time frame of when it will be reassessed, visual inspection of vaccine cards or QR codes so as little personal information has to be kept as possible, and being incredibly careful with the language and definitions when writing a policy.
Other considerations are giving ample time for workers to comply, explaining what will happen if they don’t, and having a process for addressing those who believe they have an exemption.
“You may deny them all but have to give them the right to be heard and explain why they should be protected under human rights, not just medical or religious grounds,” said Vipond. “There could be other grounds that they believe exempt them. Hear them out and then make a decision. It could help avoid a costly and lengthy human rights tribunal process.”
Tim Coldwell, president of Chandos Construction, was one of several major Canadian construction companies to implement mandatory vaccination. He explained with 125 active sites across the country that required many workers to fly and many of those sites already requiring vaccination from the government, Chandos decided it was the right decision for them.
The policy applies to Chandos employees including craft workers.
“We worked hard on not being divisive in our internal language and framing,” said Coldwell. “We even got paid professional coaches and medical professionals to speak with those who were vaccine hesitant and had our legal team meet individually with these folks. Sometimes on sites, sometimes on Zoom.”
The team would then inspect vaccine cards or scan QR codes. Coldwell says compliance has been roughly 99 per cent with no legal issues.
“Lots of people got wrapped around the axle with fear of losing good people but really we have gained good people who came to us because they wanted to work for an employer with a mandate.”
Sheri Kashman, principal consultant Jouta HR Consulting, echoed many of Vipond’s advice noting it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. She advised companies to find what works for them and see how a policy would align with their culture and practices.
“Be sure you are clear on your reasons for doing it,” said Kashman, adding it is also important to think about how a vaccine policy would impact job postings and the hiring process.
Dave Baspaly, president of the Council of Construction Associations, expressed hope the worst of the pandemic was behind us and some relief was on the horizon.
“Pandemics tend to only last this long before becoming endemic,” he said. “If you have done everything right and are still in business you are near the end game. We are trying to make the right decisions and finish strong. Dust off the COVID plan, make sure it is relevant for the context you are in and for protecting vulnerable populations. We should start to slowly path our return to normal. This is not forever.”
Baspaly said he was proud of B.C. for rolling out one of the best responses to the pandemic when it was first raging. However, he believes access to rapid testing could have been better and he believes it could play a key role going forward.
“We have a rapidly moving, transient workforce,” he said. “We need to have some mechanism to test quickly so we can make good strategic decisions to manage the workforce.”
He noted efforts are already underway to assist businesses through the Business Council of B.C.
“There will be a time when this is in background and we will look at it like most other seasonal things that come around,” he said.
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