‘Perfectly valid’ for B.C. businesses to consider vaccine mandates for workers: Henry

Mandatory vaccinations for workers may prove legally tricky, says expert

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry | Photo: Government of B.C.

With vaccine mandates on the horizon for some B.C. health-care workers, could employees at private businesses soon face similar requirements to be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment?

“These are the things that businesses need to make decisions based on the risk of their business and the risk to their business,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday after ordering all long-term care and assisted-living workers to be fully vaccinated by October 12.

“If you have people who are coming in who are not immunized, and who … cause an outbreak in that business, that can very severely impact the ability of the business to function.”

Henry said such decisions would have to be made in conjunction with business’ own legal teams.

“But I do think it is a perfectly valid thing,” she said.

Regarding any potential legal issues emerging from the Thursday’s mandate zeroing in on long-term care and assisted-living workers, Henry said she “had a conversation with the privacy commissioner [Michael McEvoy] and he is very supportive of this being a proportional and reasonable response to what we know is an ongoing risky situation.”

Such a mandate coming from private businesses to their employees might prove tricky from a legal perspective, though.

“The first question is: What do people mean by mandatory vaccinations?” Elizabeth Reid, a lawyer specializing in employment, labour and human rights at Vancouver’s Boughton Law Corp., told BIV in March. 

“You can’t hold your employees down and say, ‘You’re getting this whether you want to or not.’”

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences for non-vaccinated workers, and situations may play out differently depending on the profession.

“As a general rule, any kind of mandatory vaccination policy is going to have to provide exceptions for protected human rights grounds,” Reid said, pointing to people who refuse vaccines on religious grounds or because of underlying health issues such as allergies.

“There can be what they call ‘vaccinate-or-mask policies,’ and we see those in the health-care industry.”

Workers may decline to get a shot, but that may mean they’ll be required to mask-up the rest of the time they’re at work.

For workers unable to get vaccinated due to medical reasons, Henry said the province would be working with employers and unions to navigate the issue.

When asked if the latest orders could be extended to other services considered essential, such as grocery stores, Health Minister Adrian Dix “there are other measures that can be considered.”

“We're looking at working on measures to protect people and adjusting what we're doing,” he said after stressing Thursday’s announcement was focused specifically on specific health-care workers.

“It is not mandatory for a citizen to be vaccinated in B.C., but there are things that you may not be able to do if you’re not vaccinated.”