Employers can require healthcare workers to get COVID vaccine but union wary of mandatory shot
In Windsor-Essex, 21 per cent of seniors' home staff are hesitant to get vaccinated
While one in five Windsor-Essex healthcare workers are expressing hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine, a leading employment lawyer says employers can require people working with vulnerable populations to be vaccinated.
Senior partner of LSCS law firm Howard Levitt anticipates that the COVID-19 vaccine will soon be made mandatory and that it's plausible for organizations to do so, especially if people's lives are at risk.
But CUPE president Fred Hahn, whose union represents senior home staff, says a mandatory vaccination program will fail and that the government needs to recognize and address the hesitancy being seen among workers.
Despite being a priority group to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, 21 per cent of healthcare workers in Windsor-Essex are holding off on getting the shot — a sense of hesitancy that, according to Hahn, is due to a lack of government planning and communication.
Last week, CEO of Windsor Regional Hospital David Musyj told CBC News that workers expressed this concern in a poll and said they were refusing or delaying the COVID-19 vaccine. Musyj later said in an email that he anticipates this number will decline as some likely don't "want to go first."
The region's medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed recently said it's "critical" that workers receive the shot, especially as the region sees more than 20 outbreaks in seniors' facilities.
For the most part, Hahn says the union has heard quite the opposite from healthcare workers keen to get the vaccine, but does know that there are some who are uncertain.
This hesitancy that some workers are feeling is likely due to a number of factors.
Hahn said the government needs to recognize that a large portion of healthcare workers, specifically those in the long-term care field, are racialized women — a group that he says historically have "deep mistrust" of vaccination and health programs.
"One of the other gaping holes here is any discussion with communities to make sure there are ways in which those agencies and organizations that have built trust in Indigenous communities, with racialized communities, in faith communities, that can help people to overcome whatever hesitancy they might be experiencing in order to feel best secure," he said, adding that there's "no support" or additional resources.
He also said a big issue is the lack of a vaccine rollout plan from the provincial government.
"When there's been no good clear communication from the provincial government, that kind of lack of leadership in relation to the largest vaccination program we're going to have to put in place probably ever in the province's history it's no wonder that that ... lack of planning would lead to some people being hesitant," he said.
Another issue, according to Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and University Health Network in Toronto, is the lack of convenience or accessibility.
At this time, the vaccine is only being distributed from certain centres — in Windsor-Essex, only Windsor Regional Hospital is dishing out the shots, meaning workers across the county need to go there.
"The problem there is that well that's a drive or that's a bus ride and that's rather inconvenient," he said.
Sinha said he's heard from staff administering the vaccine in homes, that long-term care staff who didn't get the shot are lining up to receive it and noting that they didn't have time to travel to far away for it.
He said it's all about making the vaccination "convenient" and giving staff "multiple opportunities to get vaccinated."
"I'm really proud that 80 per cent of [Windsor's] staff are already interested in getting the vaccine," he said, adding that for those who are hesitant, "we owe it to them to answer their questions ... and try and allay their fears."
No reason to refuse
At this time, the vaccine remains voluntary, but Levitt said he anticipates employers will soon make the shot mandatory.
He said this will happen not only to ensure that staff and residents stay safe, but also so that organizations safeguard themselves from being sued.
"Once public health says that the proper standard is to be vaccinated, then any employer will say, 'let me eliminate the risk of a massive lawsuit for negligence because if somebody gets COVID here, I want to be able to say that I've taken all reasonable precautions and everyone was vaccinated' ... cause if everyone's vaccinated no one can sue the employer for negligence," he said.
Levitt added that this also will be used for organizations to market themselves.
"I think if you're trying to attract residents, competing with other long-term care homes you want to be the employer of choice, you want to be the caregiver, you want to be the home of choice then from marketing and branding standpoint ... don't you want to say everybody at our home is vaccinated so send your parent to this home,'" he said.
The only case a worker could have against getting the vaccine is if it raises human rights concerns, meaning they are physically unable to get the shot or cannot take it for religious purposes, Levitt said.
But, workers that just refuse, are simply giving up their job, he said.
Yet, Hahn said he doesn't believe making the vaccine mandatory is the way to go. He said the vaccine is a "tool in the toolkit," but not the solution for everyone.
"This should be a decision that you make in an informed way with your healthcare professional, not a decision that any employer should make," he said.