Air Canada’s strict new employee vaccine policy could set new workplace bar, say experts

Air Canada’s decision not to offer rapid testing as an alternative for employees who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 sets a tough new precedent that other companies may emulate, experts say.

The country’s largest airline will require all employees to disclose their vaccination status by Oct. 30. Employees who don’t have a valid reason for not having their shots, such as a medical exemption, will face consequences “up to and including unpaid leave or termination,” the airline said.

Chantel Goldsmith, an employment lawyer and partner with Samfiru Tumarkin LLP in Toronto, said Air Canada’s move is groundbreaking in that it’s a true vaccine mandate. She said companies that offer their unvaccinated employees wiggle room in the form of testing aren’t really making vaccination a condition of employment at all.

Air Canada’s announcement Wednesday came a week after most of Canada’s big banks announced their own employee vaccination policies. The airline and banking sectors are both federally regulated industries, and as such, have been ordered by Ottawa to require vaccination for their employees.

However, while many companies — including BMO and TD Bank — will allow unvaccinated workers to remain on the job as long as they submit to a regular COVID-19 rapid testing regime, Air Canada will not.

“Using the word mandating doesn’t actually mean mandating in that circumstance,” Goldsmith said.

As long as the airline lives up to its commitment to accommodate employees who, for legitimate reasons, cannot be vaccinated, the airline is within its legal rights, she added.

“I think this is the first we’ve seen by a big major employer that’s taken that step, but I do foresee other employers following suit,” Goldsmith said.

Union ‘categorically rejects’ use of termination and discipline to increase vaccination rates

However, that doesn’t mean that companies with strict vaccination mandates won’t face pushback. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), the union that represents thousands of Air Canada employees including groundcrews, said in a statement Thursday it “categorically rejects” the use of termination and discipline as a way to increase vaccination rates.

“There are other ways to encourage participation in a vaccination program such as regular testing, PPE, remote work, and proven health and safety protocols,” the IAMAW said. “Vaccination should not be the sole method of curbing COVID-19.”

Porter Airlines, WestJet Airlines and Transat have also said say they will comply with the federal government’s vaccine mandate for transportation industry employees. However, Porter has said unvaccinated employees can still work provided they get tested 72 hours prior to a shift, while WestJet and Transat have not yet announced the details of their vaccination policies.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents pilots at WestJet and Transat, said in an internal memo to members obtained by The Canadian Press that it “rejects threats of termination if vaccine requirements are implemented.”

Many non-federally-regulated companies requiring proof of vaccination

Many Canadian workers who don’t work in federally regulated industries will soon need to tell their employer their vaccination status. The City of Toronto, the Toronto Transit Commission and several universities and health care facilities throughout Canada have all recently stated their intention to require proof of vaccination from employees.

Earlier this week, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) — one of Canada’s largest oilsands companies — said it will be asking for proof of vaccination from all workers at its Horizon and Albian camps in northern Alberta. The company will offer a rapid testing program for unvaccinated employees.

Perry Berkenpas, executive director of the industry group Oil Sands Community Alliance, said vaccination rates among oilsands workers are as high as 75 to 80 per cent thanks to mass vaccination clinics held at work sites earlier this year.

But he said many companies will continue using rapid testing as an added layer of safety.

“In this case CNRL’s made a choice in one direction — I haven’t heard where others are going on that yet,” Berkenpas said. “But rapid testing will be used where they think it’s necessary.”

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