HALIFAX — Canada is facing a potential wave of terminations tied to mandatory workplace vaccine policies as a growing number of employers require workers to be fully inoculated against COVID-19 — or risk losing their jobs, legal experts say. 

Governments, institutions and companies have spent months hammering out vaccine mandates in a bid to curb an unrelenting pandemic fuelled by variants.

As employer deadlines to be fully vaccinated approach, unvaccinated workers could soon be placed on unpaid leave or terminated altogether, lawyers say. 

“We’ve been contacted by thousands of people from across Canada who all have these ultimatums in front of them saying they have to be vaccinated by a certain date or risk losing their jobs,” employment lawyer Lior Samfiru, a partner with Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, said in an interview.

“We’re going to see the biggest wave of terminations we’ve seen since the pandemic started,” he said, noting that his firm has been contacted by workers in a range of industries including health care, education, banks, construction and restaurants. 

“It will be significant.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled Canada’s new mandatory vaccine policy on Wednesday. It requires the core public service, air travel and rail employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of October.

The federal vaccine mandate mirrors provincial policies, such as in Nova Scotia where all school and health-care workers are required to have two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of November. 

Private companies have also developed corporate vaccine mandates, with looming deadlines for staff to be fully vaccinated. 

The situation has left legal experts grappling with the tension between protecting the rights of individual workers and ensuring employers meet their health and safety obligations toward staff, clients and the public.

There’s also the question of what reasonable accommodations or exemptions should be available to workers and whether unvaccinated employees who are ultimately terminated are owed compensation. 

“There’s an overriding obligation on the employer to make sure the workplace is safe,” said Ron Pizzo, a labour and employment lawyer with Pink Larkin in Halifax. 

“With COVID being an acute illness with the potential for loss of life, the risk of harm is pretty high,” he said. “Employers are imposing those policies for valid reasons as they have a duty to keep their workplace safe.”

Pizzo said his firm is getting quite a few calls from people who do not want to vaccinate and want to fight employer vaccination requirements.

Still, he said he’s not expecting mass resignations that will leave companies without enough workers given the relatively high vaccination rate among the general population. Slightly more than 80 per cent of all Canadians aged 12 and older are fully vaccinated. 

Pizzo added that many law firms are introducing mandatory vaccination policies for face-to-face meetings in the office.

Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at the Dalhousie Schulich School of Law, said employers have to balance the individual rights of workers, such as by offering reasonable accommodations, with maintaining a safe work environment. 

But he said a recent review of cases involving the balance between individual rights and public health have sided with the latter. 

“I went through a lot of the cases and tribunals and the great majority are saying that while individual rights are important and you should do everything you can to respect them, in the time of a pandemic, reasonable limits are going to be given broad scope,” MacKay said. “Most restrictions that governments are doing have been found to be reasonable given threat of COVID-19.”

While these cases didn’t deal specifically with vaccine mandates, he said the same reasoning would likely apply. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2021.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

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