Group of federal employees launches fight against vaccine mandate
Those who refuse without a valid reason will be put on unpaid leave, government says
Hundreds of federal public servants are organizing in an effort to avoid complying with the government's new mandatory vaccination rules, despite the government maintaining the mandate is necessary to protect employees from COVID-19.
The group, called Feds for Freedom, says they're not anti-vaccine but don't agree with the policy because — in their view — it violates their rights to privacy and bodily autonomy.
"One member's loss of rights and freedoms is a loss of rights and freedoms for every member across the federal public service," said founder Stacey Payne, adding the group has more than 4,000 supporters.
The group's website provides tips and documents for employees, including sample letters that can be sent to their employer and union.
But Payne insists the volunteer-run group is not offering medical or legal advice, just providing support for workers who feel they're not getting it from their unions.
The government unveiled its vaccine policy for public servants earlier this month, giving employees until this Friday to disclose their vaccination status. Those who don't, or who say they won't be fully vaccinated, could be forced into an unpaid leave of absence.
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The Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), which oversees much of the federal workforce, maintains the government has the authority to implement the policy. Employees who aren't immunized can ask for accommodation, the TBS said, but must still disclose their status.
"As early as November 15, public servants who refuse to disclose their status or who are unwilling to be fully vaccinated will be placed on administrative leave without pay," a spokesperson said in an email.
Nothing prohibits the government from collecting the vaccination status of its employees, as long as its use is limited to ensuring the workplace is safe, said privacy lawyer Constantine Karbaliotis.
"Privacy is not an absolute. It is meant to be balanced against other interests, and there is a distinct and important interest in managing this pandemic," he said.
But lawyer Michael Bergman said the government is taking its policy too far by forcing unpaid leave on those who refuse to get vaccinated.
"It's one thing for a government to say it's a good idea, we want you to do it, we encourage you to do it," Bergman said.
"But it's another thing to say if you don't do it, you're punished."
'Critical' moment for unions
Feds for Freedom is calling for demonstrations in front of union offices all this week ahead of the Oct. 29 deadline. On Monday morning, Payne and a handful of others gathered outside of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) building in downtown Ottawa to protest.
"Our union is not supporting our members right now, so we are supporting each other as a group," Payne said.
In an email, PSAC national president Chris Aylward said the union "absolutely" respected everyone's right to protest, but also encouraged all its members — including those who protested Monday — to get vaccinated "unless they have a valid medical or other human rights exemption."
Nicholas Marcus Thompson, a local president in the Union of Taxation Employees, said the vaccine mandate has caused a rift in his union's membership, with a record number of employees contacting the union to voice both support and opposition to the policy.
"The two groups, it seems, are competing, which has a potential to become very dangerous," he said.
Thompson said those who support the mandate are concerned about unvaccinated employees spreading COVID-19, while unvaccinated ones are worried about their privacy and their livelihoods should they be forced to leave their jobs.
"It is probably one of the most critical moments for labour and organized labour," he said. "It is an issue that is tearing right down the centre of the membership, and we'll see what happens."
With files from Julie-Anne Lapointe and Marie-Jeanne Dubreuil