Number of city workers with vaccine exemptions 'extremely high,' politician says

The City of London granted 126 vaccine exemptions on human rights grounds to its workers, a number that far exceeds other cities and is "extremely high" according to one city politician.

The city refused to say how many workers were given human rights code and medical exemptions

The City of London granted 126 exemptions to its employee vaccine mandate on human rights grounds. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

The City of London granted 126 COVID-19 vaccine exemptions on human rights grounds to its workers, a number that far exceeds other cities and is worryingly high, according to one city councillor. 

"It's extremely high. A creed created for the sole purpose of avoiding vaccination is not a creed," said Ward 5 Maureen Cassidy, who has come out against the city's vaccine policy, which she says is not strong enough. 

Ontario's Human Rights Code does not define 'creed,' but it does include religion, which must be "sincerely, freely and deeply held," is an integral part of a person's self-definition and spiritual fulfilment, has an overarching system of beliefs and a connection to a community that professes a shared belief system. Political opinion or belief is not a creed under the code. 

"I'm troubled when I look at our numbers and how they compare to other cities.  Employees have been reaching out to me and they're concerned that they have to go to work alongside someone who is not vaccinated. But what can I tell them?" 

Employees who believe their colleagues have made false declarations have been told they can report their co-workers. 

All major religions have come out in favour of vaccination, said human rights and employment lawyer Susan Toth. 

"From an organized religion perspective, there are no reasons why you can't be vaccinated, so when I hear that over 100 people are claiming a creed exemption, you start to wonder how many of those are fully fleshed out creeds," she said. 

'You trust your people'

The city does not investigate the legal declarations that employees make. Instead, they take people at their word, said Barry Card, the city's lawyer, who advised the city manager on how to frame the vaccine policy. 

"The requirement is that the attestation be made in good faith. You trust your people," Card said. "We decided to do what we did because we respect the human rights code.. 

Card said he doesn't think 126 employees claiming exemptions is high. "It shouldn't be surprising that there are people who have human rights grounds," he said. 

City officials refused to release the exemption data, but CBC News obtained the information after filing a freedom of information request. The documents also revealed 14 people received medical exemptions to the vaccine mandate. 

Other cities have told their employees they must get vaccinated or face termination. Toronto fired 461 workers for not getting their shot. Just 37 applied for exemptions to the policy and their applications are still pending. 

In Thames Centre, directly east of London, and Middlesex Centre, west and north of London, all employees have to be vaccinated or be fired. 

Paramedics and police officers in London must be vaccinated to work. Firefighters don't have to be vaccinated because they fall under the City of London's vaccination policy. 

Tougher policy

In December, the city toughened its policy slightly, mandating that those with medical or human rights exemptions take rapid antigen tests twice a week if they're going into work. The city is footing the bill for the testing. 

Some municipalities may be relying on vaccine mandate precedents that were established before the pandemic, Toth said. 

"Those pre-pandemic precedents really focused on telling employers to accept when somebody steps forward using creed as a reason why they cannot, in this case, receive a vaccination," she said. 

Once an employer, like the city, has accepted exemptions on human rights grounds, it's more difficult to make new policies without exemptions, Toth said, but accommodations for employees can be revisited as the pandemic evolves. 

"In a case where we see Omicron is more contagious and potentially still serious and spreading faster, it is within any employers rights to revisit the accommodations and say, 'You know what, at first we could accommodate you by rapid test, but we now know that rapid tests may not be enough to catch the Omicron once it's contagious, therefore if you're not vaccinated and you're in a public-facing position, particularly with vulnerable people, you cannot be in that job.'" 

Cassidy, who has city workers approaching her for advice, said she's frustrated she can't do more to get remaining city employees vaccinated. 

"I'm concerned. I'm concerned and I'm frustrated," she said.