Coca-Cola's vaccination policy for B.C. employees upheld by arbitrator after union's challenge

·3 min read
Coca-Cola said it was taking reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of workers when it introduced a nationwide mandatory vaccination policy. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press - image credit)
Coca-Cola said it was taking reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of workers when it introduced a nationwide mandatory vaccination policy. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press - image credit)

A legal challenge by the union representing more than 400 Coca-Cola employees in B.C.'s Lower Mainland regarding the company's vaccination policy has been shot down by the Labour Relations Board.

In October 2021, Coca-Cola implemented a nationwide policy that required employees be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. If employees were not fully vaccinated by Jan. 1, 2022, they could face discipline including suspension and termination.

Teamsters Local 213 argued the policy should be struck down because it's unreasonable for an employer to force employees to undergo medical procedures to continue working. It also claimed Coca-Cola failed to consistently enforce the policy.

The challenge related to workers in factories in Richmond, Coquitlam and Chilliwack.

Coca-Cola argued the policy was necessary to protect employees. The policy was introduced following major outbreaks at numerous facilities.

Across Canada there have been many similar challenges to vaccination policies, as unvaccinated employees face precarious futures with their employers.

Policy was 'gross invasion': union

The union's main argument was that the benefits of the vaccination policy failed to outweigh "the gross invasion" of the "forced medical procedure," according to the decision.

It said coronavirus infection rates at the facilities in Richmond and Coquitlam were low before a spike in January 2022. After the spike, it was unclear how many infections were among vaccinated or unvaccinated employees, it added — and once all the unvaccinated employees were removed by the end of January, the virus continued to spread.

"That… is evidence of the failure of the Policy to accomplish its primary objective, the prevention of the spread of COVID," the union argued.

The union also said Coca-Cola failed to enforce the policy consistently as some employees who worked exclusively at home were accommodated and not placed on a leave of absence.

But arbitrator Randal Noonan didn't accept that argument because the policy clearly stated that it applied to all employees who came into the head office or any facility.

Nathan Denette/Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/Canadian Press

Longtime employee's testimony

Alec Kaloesnichenko, an employee with more than 30 years of experience, testified for the union.

The father of four said he had been off work without pay since the end of January because he refused to be vaccinated. In December, Kaloesnichenko, his wife and his daughter all caught COVID-19, he said.

"Immunity after you get it is just as strong or stronger," he said, even though many people have been ill with COVID-19 multiple times.

"Having survived COVID, I didn't want to take any chances [with the vaccine]."

During his testimony, Kaloesnichenko said he did his own research and found sources he trusted.

"Bill Gates has stated numerous times that the vaccine is not effective," he said.

However, Noonan wasn't swayed by the witness's testimony regarding the Microsoft founder.

"With no disrespect to that witness or others who may agree with him, that evidence is of little or no value," he wrote, because the claims hadn't been properly admitted and tested in the hearing.

Gates supports vaccination and by January 2021 his foundation had committed $1.75 billion US to the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including via funds for the COVAX vaccine-sharing initiative co-led by the World Health Organization, and via direct support for some vaccine makers.

Policy is reasonable: arbitrator

In his decision, Noonan wrote that both sides failed to produce expert witnesses to testify to the efficacy of vaccination.

"Where there is no better scientific evidence properly before an employer when a policy is enacted or before an arbitration panel, the best evidence is the statements and orders made by proper authorities such as the provincial health officer," he wrote.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says vaccination remains the primary safeguard against the spread of COVID-19.

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