Meghan Potkins

Published:September 7, 2021

-Calgary Herald


Union leaders say they were “blindsided” by news last week that the city plans to require employees to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or face possible disciplinary measures or dismissal from the job.

The heads of two of the city’s largest unions say a Friday email from city officials announcing the mandatory vaccination policy ran counter to months of discussions with workers.

“I was completely blindsided by it,” said Mike Mahar, president of Calgary’s transit union, who said the city announced the new requirement before having “a single discussion with our local.”

“As recently as Wednesday we had met with city officials and they were talking about confirmation of being fully vaccinated or participating in rapid testing, and the rapid testing was being set up to be as least intrusive as possible.”

D’Arcy Lanovaz, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 38, said he did not expect the city to introduce a policy that included the threat of termination.

“That was not any of the conversations that we’ve been having with the city literally for months,” Lanovaz said. “All of the conversations we had, they were heading in a different direction and in 24 hours it flipped.”

With COVID-19 cases rising rapidly in Alberta, city officials publicly announced the new policy last Friday at a meeting of council’s emergency management committee. The city said workers must be fully immunized by Nov. 1 — making Oct. 18 the last possible date that employees can book their second dose.

The city said employees who can’t get the shots for medical reasons or due to an exemption under protected grounds, such as religious beliefs, will be accommodated. But those who refuse to get vaccinated without a valid reason could face discipline, including dismissal.

Employees who work entirely remotely may be exempt, but the city is still exploring that possibility.

City manager David Duckworth told committee members Friday that he has been flooded with messages from employees who were afraid to return to work and are pleased with the new policy.

But following the long weekend there were already signs that some employees are angry with the city.

A few dozen people who identified themselves as first responders, including firefighters, police officers and paramedics, staged a protest outside city hall Tuesday morning in opposition to vaccine mandates.

Experts say COVID-19 has been challenging for unions who are being pulled in two directions, with some workers calling for vaccine mandates to improve workplace safety and others who expect accommodation if they can’t or won’t get the vaccine.

While there is some precedent when it comes to nurses and other health-care professionals who are required to have certain vaccines to work, “we’re sort of entering new territory when it comes to other employers requiring it,” said Alex Shevalier, with Calgary & District Labour Council.

While the unions have been strongly encouraging members to get vaccinated, Lanovaz said they may be forced to pursue litigation to protect the rights of workers who are being threatened with discipline or termination.

“There’s high emotion on all sides,” said Lanovaz. “As much as both sides want it to be clear cut, it’s just simply not that clear cut.

“What we have to look at is, is the employer’s position legal? And have the rights of our members been protected? The only thing that’s not ambiguous in this situation is every union has a clear obligation to come to the aid of any member that has been disciplined.”