Sudbury

Northern Ontario's largest employers don't require workers to get COVID-19 vaccinations

While most government workers in northern Ontario have to prove they are vaccinated against COVID-19, the thousands who work in the private sector do not, and it is creating tensions on the job.

Most mines, mills, other private companies don't have vaccine policies, unlike public sector

A worker heads into start a shift at Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. The steel mill is not requiring its 2,800 workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and is among some of northern Ontario's largest employers not mandating the shots. (Erik White/CBC )

While most government workers are required to prove if they are vaccinated against COVID-19, it's a very different story in the private sector.

Almost none of northeastern Ontario's largest industrial employers have vaccination policies.

The Algoma steel mill  in Sault Ste. Marie says it does not require its 2,800 employees to be vaccinated.

Vale, with some 4,000 workers in Sudbury, didn't answer CBC's questions, but United Steelworkers Local 6500 says there is no policy in place.

That's also the case at Glencore in Sudbury, where about 1,000 miners and smelter workers are represented by the Mine Mill union.

"This is a very polarizing issue for a lot of people," says union president Eric Boulay.

"Some are for it and some are against it, and they want to see the union fight for their direction, and that's two different directions."

A worker heads in for a shift at the Glencore's Falconbridge smelter in Sudbury. Employees at the mining giant and at crosstown rival Vale are not required to be vaccinated. (Erik White/CBC )

Boulay said that on top of the in-fighting among the membership, his local's "pro-choice" stance also strays from the national Unifor union, which wants to see COVID-19 vaccines made mandatory.

"We do encourage everyone to get vaccinated, but it's still your body and you still have the right to decide what goes in it, and putting your employment on the line isn't reasonable in our mind," he said.

Vaccine mandates are also rare in northern Ontario's forest industry.

United Steelworkers Local 1-2010 says none of the 2,000 forest workers it represents are required to show proof of vaccination. The union for the Domtar paper plant in Espanola echoes that.

Eacom is offering workers at its five northern Ontario sawmills a $350 bonus to get vaccinated, but has no plans to require that employees get it. (EACOM)

There are no plans for a vaccine policy at Eacom, which runs sawmills in Nairn Centre, Gogama, Elk Lake and Timmins.

Eacom is offering workers at its five northern Ontario sawmills a $350 bonus to get the shot, but has no plans to make it mandatory. 

"We still believe vaccination is the best weapon we have, but we don't want to push it and we don't want to force employees," says Jean Brodeur, director of public relations and communications, adding that instead, their focus is on stopping the spread with handwashing, masking and physical distancing. 

Railways are one exception, because they are federally regulated and the Liberal government has said legislation requiring COVID-19 vaccination policies is on its way.

Railroads are one of the few industrial workplaces in northern Ontario bringing in vaccination policies, because it's being required by the federal government. (Erik White/CBC)

CN Rail has already set a policy that will see unvaccinated workers sent home without pay after Nov. 1. 

"Our members are very upset and rightfully so. They don't feel the company should have the right to force them to get vaccinated," says Lyndon Isaak, president of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference.

"We are [worried]. I think CN is also worried. They could have a severe manpower shortage come Nov. 1."

Regarded as frontline 'heroes' in the early days of the pandemic, most retail workers now are not required to get vaccinated against COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Most of the retail workers praised as front-line heroes earlier in the pandemic are not required to get vaccinated.

But Tim Deelstra, spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 175 and 633, said they are reviewing policies on a case-by-case basis, but the COVID-19 world remains unpredictable. 

"The situation will change and employers will start making various decisions on their own, and in this case they have to," he said.

Deelstra said his union, which has 70,000 members across Ontario, would like to see the provincial government take the lead and set rules to protect private-sector workers, not just those on the public payroll. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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