One of Alberta's largest oil and gas companies is mandating vaccines at its worksites with a COVID-19 policy that encompasses employees, contract operators and people working under direct contract at its Calgary head officers or in the field.
The decision was guided by the public health emergency in Alberta and the rise in COVID-19 cases, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) told CBC News in an emailed statement.
"In effort to enhance safety measures already in place, we continue to implement additional measures to build our collective response to COVID-19," said the statement.
The vaccination policy starts on Dec. 1, and provides exemptions for medical or religious reasons. CNRL did not state what would happen with employees without exemptions who do not get vaccinated.
Unknowns and consequences
Perry Berkenpas, executive director for the Oil Sands Community Alliance, said the need to keep employees safe is critical but he is worried about the impact on labour.
"There's a concern across industry, that [with] the delta variant and with the caseload in the province, that we are likely to see impacts on the business going forward," said Berkenpas.
"Can we get workers? Are there pieces of work that have to be stopped because of positive tests?"
There are also unknowns, such as booster shots, he said. "We are dealing with a moving target."
CNRL currently has four active outbreaks, with two dating back to October 2020, which have seen 2,232 cases of COVID-19. There are currently 77 active cases, according to Alberta Health.
As of Wednesday, there were 23 active cases in the rural Wood Buffalo area and 334 in Fort McMurray.
Berkenpas said he expects other companies will look at the CNRL policy but for now there's no industry standard.
"Others are going to consider that, but they're also going to look at, 'Do we still need to use rapid testing in some shape or form?'"
At Imperial Oil, there is no mandated vaccine, and workers at its Kearl site north of Fort McMurray are required to provide proof of vaccination or undergo a rapid test every 72 hours, spokesperson Lisa Schmidt said in an email.
Vaccination is also not mandatory at Suncor but it is encouraged, according to spokesperson Leithan Slade.
Adam Savaglio, an employment law expert at Scarfone Hawkins LLP, said the CNRL policy isn't surprising as employers try to balance workplace safety, operations, government mandates and employee resistance to vaccination.
"Eventually we'll get to a point where this will become more commonplace than not, given the burden on employers," he said.
Savaglio said employers aren't required to provide further accommodations to people who choose not to be vaccinated without having a religious or medical exemption.
"They can terminate that employment contract," said Savaglio.
Then it becomes a question of severance and notice, which will be affected by whether the worker is in a union, their seniority at the company and whether they're under contract.
Savaglio said if the burden is on employers to comply with health and safety standards, then they need authority to control and maintain health and safety guidelines. Employers can ask for limited medical information if it serves the health and safety standard, he added.
"You can't put all of the burden on them and then expect them not to be able to mandate what's in their workplace," he said.
Lluc Cerda, managing associate at the Calgary office of Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, said mandatory vaccination policies are becoming common among employers but he is troubled when these policies don't make room for alternatives like rapid-testing or allowing people to work from home.
"The question that remains unanswered is, 'What happens to an employee who continues to not have the vaccine?'"
If an employee is suspended or terminated for not being vaccinated, they could be entitled to a severance package. If impacted employees are represented by a union, the union could file a grievance, he said.
"It's a stark choice that employees have," said Cerda.