Politics

Ottawa considers definition of 'fully vaccinated' in review of federal worker mandate

The federal government says it will consider including booster shots in the next version of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its workers.

Federal government is required to review its mandatory vaccine policy this week

Almost 99 per cent of federal public servants and RCMP officers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The federal government could consider including booster shots in the next version of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its workers.

The government must review the need for the vaccine mandate policy, which currently requires federal public servants to get two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine or face unpaid leave after six months.

That timeline runs out this week and while Treasury Board has consulted with unions over the last several weeks, the Public Service Alliance of Canada says it has no notion of what the government intends to do.

"They have said, 'You will see a renewed policy on April 6,"' said Chris Aylward, national president of the union. "I have no idea what that renewed policy might look like."

A spokesperson for the Treasury Board said no update or decision is planned for Wednesday.

"The government's vaccine policy review for public servants is currently underway and the results will be communicated in due course," said Geneviève Sicard. 

While the review could conclude the mandate is no longer necessary, the government also could opt to expand it to encourage more members of the public service to get booster shots.

"Any decisions will be based on science and the advice of public health officials," Mona Fortier, president of the Treasury Board, said in a media statement Monday.

As it stands, any worker in the core public administration, as well as the RCMP, must attest that they are fully vaccinated or risk being put on leave without pay.

The policy applies even to employees who work from home.

The policy document states the goal of the mandates is to protect employees, their colleagues and clients against COVID-19, and boost vaccination rates across the public service.

Fortier confirmed last week that the definition of "fully vaccinated" is being considered as part of the review.

Most federal workers say they're vaccinated with 2 doses

More than 98 per cent of federal public workers have attested that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 with two doses as of March 28.

If the definition of "fully vaccinated" is changed, workers may need a booster to keep their pay.

Vaccination rates in the general population are similarly high, at about 90 per cent for those 18 years or older as of March 27. But uptake of boosters has been slower, at just 57 per cent.

Approximately 2,690 workers, representing about one per cent of the federal workforce, requested some kind of accommodation in the last six months.

Aylward said "very, very few" employees have been placed on leave.

Chris Aylward is president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. (Robyn Miller/CBC )

Unions have pushed back on the vaccine mandate ahead of the six-month review.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada urged the government to determine when the policy will no longer be needed, given the high vaccination rate across the country.

"As provinces ease restrictions, the employer must do the same and allow members on Leave Without Pay (LWOP) to come back to work," the PIPSC said in a statement.

PSAC recently filed a grievance against the existing policy on behalf of all members who have been put on leave without pay because of their vaccination status.

Union has filed grievances

Putting the unvaccinated on leave without pay is harsh, the union argued, and can be considered a disciplinary action without cause.

PSAC also filed grievances against the policy in December 2021 on behalf of Treasury Board employees who work remotely, and earlier this month for Canada Revenue Agency employees who work from home.

The union said at the time the vaccine mandate for remote workers constituted an abuse of management, since people with little prospect of returning to physical workplace posed no reasonable threat to health and safety.

The government has made accommodations for people on medical, religious and other grounds protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act.

The six-month review comes as provinces have started lifting public health restrictions, including vaccine mandates, across the country.

While the massive Omicron wave that washed over Canada in January and February has just receded, the country is likely in the midst of a resurgence, chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam reported Friday.

Over the last several weeks, she's suggested Canada is in a "period of uncertainty" and has urged people to get up to date on their vaccinations to protect themselves against severe illness.

In general, though, Tam said policy-makers are moving away from mandates for booster doses.

"We want Canadians to want to get it, because it makes sense from a serious outcome perspective," she said at a briefing on March 18.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said the federal government is planning to update its policy on mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for its employees on Wednesday. In fact, PSAC says it was told to expect a new policy Wednesday, but the Treasury Board says no decision is planned for that day.
    Apr 05, 2022 11:35 AM ET

With files from CBC News

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