Dozens of City of Windsor employees fired for not disclosing COVID-19 vaccine status asked to return to work

Windsor city hall is shown in a file photo. The city says dozens of workers who were fired over non-compliance with a COVID-19 vaccination policy have been offered positions. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC - image credit)
Windsor city hall is shown in a file photo. The city says dozens of workers who were fired over non-compliance with a COVID-19 vaccination policy have been offered positions. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC - image credit)

A majority of City of Windsor workers who were fired for not disclosing their COVID-19 vaccination status have been offered their jobs back, according to the city.

Last January, the City of Windsor said that 104 employees were fired over their refusal to get vaccinated or disclose their status. Following a grace period, 84 workers were officially dismissed, according to the city.

In December, the city asked 67 of those staff members — which includes 21 full-timers — to return to work.

Dana Paladino, acting executive director of human resources, said the city has been working closely with the appropriate unions and has been offering these staff members their jobs back since the city lifted its COVID-19 vaccine mandate on Nov. 9.

In most cases, the collective agreement allows the returning workers to bump out the person who has filled their position. The city said anyone bumped will have an opportunity to find an alternative position.

Of those fired, 17 have not been offered a return to work, according to Paladino.

She said the reasons for this vary, including that some had grievances that have been settled or have an outstanding grievance, others had their roles filled and are not part of a collective agreement that would allow them to bump that person out and others were not offered their jobs back for reasons unrelated to their COVID-19 vaccine status.

Of those asked to return, the city says 18 have accepted, five are in talks with the city's human resources department and four have declined — they have not heard back from the others.

Jennifer La Grassa/CBC
Jennifer La Grassa/CBC

For those coming back to work, Paladino said they are working to keep a respectful environment.

"It's definitely potentially a challenge, depending on the environment they are coming back to. We've made it very clear from the outset ... we have a respectful workplace policy that we expect everyone to abide by, both the returning employee as well as the existing employees that are now working with those individuals," she said.

"We welcome these individuals back, what's past is past and there won't be any tolerance for any sort of harassment from any party going forward."

Lawsuits ongoing around vaccine dismissal

Some of those asked to return to work are still part of an ongoing lawsuit against the City of Windsor. In August, 20 then laid-off workers joined together to sue the city for breaching their constitutional rights after they were fired for not claiming their vaccine status.

Since then, more workers have joined the case, bringing the total number of employees part of the lawsuit to 30.

The lawyer representing the group, Courtney Betty, told CBC News that his clients are happy with being asked to return to work.

"Clearly, it's an indication that these employees did not do anything wrong. But I also see it as a further indication that the city is trying to mend bridges," said Betty.

According to Betty, about 90 per cent of his clients have been asked to come back to work. For those who haven't received an offer, Betty said they are looking into it.

"We do believe that it' critical that these individuals have the opportunity not only to return back to their jobs but to the same positions that they were forced to leave," he said.

Jennifer La Grassa/CBC
Jennifer La Grassa/CBC

He said they are still looking for compensation from the city for the time that people spent unemployed. Since they were fired with cause, according to Betty, people couldn't file for Employment Insurance.

"It's also critical that individuals also be compensated, for some individuals [that's] 18 months of their lives that they not only lost earnings, may have lost their mortgage, families. It's been very destructive for these individuals," Betty said.

He said they have a court date set for May, but notes that the city could choose to remedy this outside of court.

The group suing the city includes firefighters, early childhood education workers, data analysts, a city forester and manager of forestry and natural areas, multiple Enwin employees and a Huron Lodge personal support worker.

These staff members were put on unpaid leave in November 2021 and terminations began in January, according to the group's statement of claim.

The statement of claim also asks that the city declare that suspending or terminating the employees was unconstitutional, and to pay general damages of $250,000 per plaintiff, aggravated damages of $50,000 per plaintiff for "mental distress," and punitive damages of $1,000 per employee per day since March 1, 2022, up until the mandate was rescinded.

Paladino told CBC News that the city is dealing with a few lawsuits related to this and, to her understanding, none of them have been dropped at this time.