Council works on COVID-19 vaccination policy for township

·5 min read

Southgate council members will be re-considering the township vaccination policy after alternatives for staff are clarified.

While council agreed in principle with the policy, it asked for changes to include clearer provisions under the “Accommodation” section of the policy.

In the meantime, staff was directed to go ahead with collecting vaccine data of employees to be held in confidence, and holding education sessions related to immunization requirements.

Council will consider the policy again on Oct. 6.

Mr. Milliner said that the policy had been “acid-tested” with the re-start committee, employees and departments.

“This has been very, very difficult,” he said, and said it needed approval at the highest level.

The Southgate policy says that “people need to get educated if they’re not vaccinated,” he said.

The “purpose” section of the policy said that “All eligible employees are required to provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination as a critical control measure for the hazard of COVID-19, unless it is medically contraindicated.”

That led to concern for some, as Cory Henry, who has worked for the township for more than a dozen years, spoke to council about the policy in Open Forum before the meeting.

He said he was not there to debate the need for the policy, but wanted to address the “lack of choice and options” for staff in the draft policy. “Please give Southgate staff an option, please give them a choice,” he said, mentioning that the Grey County policy allows for an option of education and antigen-testing.

In later discussion, Mr. Milliner and Human Resources staff person Kayla Best directed attention to Section 10-C of the policy, which addresses exemption requests other than medical or human rights code.

The employee then has to submit a plan of how they can fulfill all job duties and respect safety of the public and fellow workers. Common work spaces, equipment use and dealing with members of the public are mentioned.

The policy says that senior management and human resources will review each case to see what accommodation can be made. Those employees will be subject to “additional safety protocols including greater isolation rules.”

Records of vaccination status won’t be put in regular access but will be in a separate file for Human Resources use only.

The policy says those who have not addressed the matter by disclosing their status or submitting an accommodation request will be placed on an unpaid leave of absence.

“I think employees need to understand there are options,” said Coun. Barbara Dobreen, “and the disciplinary measures would be undertaken in severe cases.”

Human Resources Kayla said the township has an obligation under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to provide a safe workplace, and health officials are saying that vaccinations are the way to do that.

Deputy-Mayor Brian Milne said that while he supports vaccinations, “I’m not insensitive to the issues that some people have,” he said.

He said that making it more clear that rapid testing can be an alternative is important.

Mr. Milliner said that in a lot of cases, the antigen testing is being looked at by many employers as a step on the way to having a vaccinated workplace. It is accompanied by education on vaccines.

Where the test should be doneneeds to be sorted out (some are done at home and some in the workplace) and Mr. Milliner said the cost of the kits is another question.

Antigen testing is one approach but there may also need to be job re-assignment needed as well, he said. He also questioned whether the public would expect that township employees in public-facing roles like the transfer station or those who are going into someone’s home or business will be vaccinated.

Coun. Barbara Dobreen said workplaces have to encourage vaccination and make it easy for employees to do so. She said education is important, but said the possibility of dismissal is harsh.

Coun. Martin Shipston agreed with that accommodations need to be made more clear.

In his open forum remarks, Mr. Henry asked if the long-term effects of the vaccines were known. If the answer is no, he said, then people should not be forced to have vaccines through threat of being unable to work.

Fully vaccinated people can still get COVID, become ill and transmit it, he said. Vaccinations reduce the symptoms, but his opinion was that employees should be able to choose to fight the symptoms on their own.

The Southgate policy as presented says the requests will be reviewed to see what accommodation can be made. The policy says in one place that “All new hires of the Township of Southgate shall provide proof of vaccination prior to beginning employment with the Township.”

Mr. Henry said policy should take all employees into account. “With all the animosity that currently surrounds vaccinated vs unvaccinated, I support a more inclusive policy that calls for rapid antigen testing for anyone that has symptoms, vaccinated or not.”

During discussion, Coun. Dobreen said, “I think we’ve made it clear that terminations or layoffs would be as a last resort.”

Coun. Rice asked if the policy would still be in place when the pandemic was declared over, and staff’s answer was no, with perhaps a question remaining about boosters.

Coun. Rice also pointed out that there is a cost to rapid antigen testing, and as well a cost to some precautions like only sending one person in a vehicle.

M.T. Fernandes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Dundalk Herald

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