Kevin Green, Ryan White
Published:December 15, 2021
Alberta Health Services’ immunization deadline for staff members passed Monday and, while the vast majority complied, approximately 1,650 employees are now on unpaid leave.
AHS confirmed Tuesday night that the full-time and part-time workers on unpaid leave will be able to return to their role at any time if they provide proof of full immunization.
According to AHS, the staffing reduction is not expected to cause additional surgery delays, reduce access to emergency care or affect acute care bed access.
“The policy will help us protect those in our care, as well as those providing care, treatment and support to Albertans,” said an AHS spokesperson in a statement sent to CTV News. “We are extremely grateful for the 97 per cent of full-time and part-time staff and 99.7 per cent of physicians who have become fully immunized to date.”
An additional 175 unvaccinated AHS staff members, who are eligible for temporary, targeted COVID-19 testing, were permitted to remain on the job at 19 select work locations as well as nine EMS locations across the province.
The testing option was introduced at these undisclosed locations that AHS said were at risk of service disruptions.
AHS also confirmed a handful of employees who are eligible for temporary testing have turned that option down and have been placed on unpaid leave.
A breakdown of the roles of the affected employees has not been released but it clearly includes nursing staff as the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) has filed a policy grievance on behalf of affected employees.
The UNA believes that by allowing some employers to continue to work using rapid tests while suspending others is discriminatory.
“What we’re saying is the initial policy, we thought was a reasonable and effective policy. But what happened is they changed the date a couple of times, but then they changed the entire policy. So, what’s happening now is, if you’re not fully vaccinated, you’re not permitted to work and you are on an unpaid LOA (leave of absence) unless you’re in a certain area,” said David Harrigan, UNA manager of Labour Relations.
“So we now have some people who haven’t been vaccinated and are prepared to take the test, but they’re told no, you’re not permitted to you must stay at home without pay,” he added. “And (then there are) other nurses who haven’t been vaccinated, and they’re told ‘you come to work and get paid’. It’s just not reasonable to treat different areas in a different manner. Either it’s safe to have unvaccinated people as long as there’s testing, or it’s not safe.”
The exact wording of the UNA grievance filed Monday says “the policy is unreasonable because it applies to employees and positions that are able to perform their work remotely and therefore do not pose a risk to others. The policy is not tied to an outbreak or pandemic; the indefinite nature of the policy is unreasonable and unfair.”
It goes on to state that “AHS has twice delayed implementation of this policy and this renders the timelines in the policy unclear. The employer has not consistently enforced its policy.
“The effect of the policy is that some have complied by getting vaccinated and others have not. There have been no consequences for those who have not.”
The UNA complaint has not been tested yet through arbitration.
AUPE: SEVERAL GRIEVANCES FILED
The Alberta Union of Public Employees has also filed several grievances over the vaccine mandate.
AUPE vice president Bonnie Gostola said the union understands the need for a vaccine mandate from a health and safety perspective for all Albertans but is legally bound to protect its workers in labour issues.
“We definitely know there are some in our unions that are anti-vaxxers, and we strongly recommend members get vaccinated and have since vaccinations became available to our members advised that they should take the vaccine,” said Gostola “Where they have made a choice, they must also take the consequences of their actions and if they disagree with the consequences, and they disagree with what their employer has implemented, they do have a right, under the collective agreements and under human rights, etc., to file grievances, which the union will defend.”
AHS claims the suspensions will not have an impact on patient care.
The unions say workers who followed the rules and got vaccinated will be punished with heavier workloads and forced overtime.
“They basically will force people who may have had a break over the Christmas holiday to have to work longer hours, they may have to work with shorter breaks, the overtime again is going to be crippling,” said Gostola “Our members are literally beyond the breaking point right now. They are suffering because of the shortages that have already occurred due to COVID.”
“Now they’re going to suffer even more.”
University of Calgary law professor Lorian Hardcastle worries that the seemingly flexible rules, and subsequent labour disputes in large agencies like AHS will make smaller companies reticent to enforce their own vaccine mandates
“If AHS has their vaccine mandate undermined, and we’ve seen recently the City of Calgary’s vaccine mandate undermined, I worry that smaller workplaces who don’t have the same legal resources at their disposal may feel like they need to follow suit, or if they hadn’t already implemented a vaccine programme for employees might be deterred from doing so” said Hardcastle “I think that people really do look to those large employers for guidance, and so I worry about the effect this will have on smaller businesses.”
AHS says it will review its vaccine mandate and all forced unpaid leaves of absence at the end of March 2022.