Vaccines in the Workplace
As BC’s restart plan continues to move further into phase 3 and closer to phase 4, more and more employers are resuming onsite operations, and reducing restrictions in their workplaces. This has and will likely continue to bring up issues related to vaccination status and wearing of masks.
As we’ve likely all experienced (in the workplace and beyond), it’s not uncommon for people to openly discuss when they’re getting/when they got vaccinated, how they felt, what vaccine they received, and so forth. This has become as commonplace as discussing what you did over the weekend, or what you’re having for lunch. It’s less common to hear individuals state openly that they’re not intending to get vaccinated, except among those they trust.
For workplaces in particular, whether someone intends to get vaccinated is considered personal, confidential information under privacy legislation. As vaccines for COVID-19 have obviously been highly encouraged from an overarching health and safety perspective, and culturally/socially speaking (per popular media), it is clearly more acceptable to be on the side of vaccination than not. However, there are many reasons why individuals may choose not to proceed with one at this time, many of which are health related. With much of the population (or a given workplace) choosing to become vaccinated, these folks may be looked down upon for making a choice that feels at odds with the greater good. This is oftentimes why they may keep their decisions and/or beliefs to themselves – and in most workplaces, they, like everyone, have every right to.
At Jouta, we’ve been asked by clients whether it’s acceptable to ask employees if they’ve been vaccinated. Depending on the situation, we respond first by determining why they feel they need or want to know, followed by what they intend to do with the information/what decisions they would base upon it. Based on those responses, and unless there’s a bona fide reason for collecting the information (e.g., as in the case of healthcare environments) our answer in the vast majority of cases is no, with the rest being maybe. If there is a bona fide reason, it’s important to look specifically at what information is reasonable to collect based on its purpose, scope, way of collecting and, the availability of alternatives (e.g., feasibility of wearing masks). Accordingly, employers need to provide notice and be transparent about why they’re collecting the information, what they’re going to do with it, who will see it, etc.
As we’ve noted in a previous post, it’s acceptable for employers, from an occupational health and safety perspective, to clarify your stance as an organization that meeting the threshold of vaccinations in your workplace is the general objective (but is not mandatory). You can also share official public health information, such as the vaccination schedule, and confirm the legislated paid time off for receiving vaccinations. You should not, however, allow either fear mongering/discussion about not getting vaccinated, nor anti-vaccination/mask commentary to take hold – nor be the initiator of such commentary/discussion.
This also relates to the matter of wearing masks. Phase 3 of BC’s restart plan (in effect from July 1st until at least September 6th) indicates that masks are recommended in indoor public spaces for those who are not yet fully vaccinated (i.e., up until 14 days after the second vaccination), and by personal choice by anyone. To be clear, the PHO guidance has indicated that masks are no longer mandatory. That said, employers can make stronger recommendations and ask that masks continue to be worn in the workplace (until phase 4). As employers may typically not ask for proof of vaccination (as outlined previously), many are choosing to continue with this recommendation as they ease back into the workplace – and for the overall safety of those who’ve not yet been vaccinated and/or are at greater risk. While we appreciate the varying circumstances of all workplaces, given situations in other provinces/countries, we feel a more eased-in approach (in contrast to flipping the switch 100% from masks to no masks overnight) makes sense.
As has been the case over the last 16 months, employers are again faced with navigating another sensitive and unique issue. Where vaccinations are concerned, we encourage you to consider it in light of overall Human Rights and Privacy legislation. Whether it shows up in practice or not, most employers know it’s not acceptable to discriminate against/treat individuals differently based upon the Human Rights prohibited grounds, such as race, sex/sexual identity or gender identity. Less evident, though equally prohibited matters include political and religious beliefs, which are a good example of where lines do get crossed, such as asking people who they’re voting for, and treating people differently in the workplace as a result.
Despite any beliefs you hold about vaccinations, inquiring about and basing employment-related decisions/treating people differently based on vaccination status (unless clearly mandated by the Public Health Officer) may be considered discrimination. For that reason, we discourage open discussion of any sort related to personal opinion or status of vaccinations within the workplace.