No mandatory COVID vaccine for County staff

·5 min read

On Wednesday, November 10, Woodlands County Council took on a big topic: COVID vaccine mandates for County employees. CAO Gordon Frank explained that they had received a letter on October 13, 2021, from the Minister of Community and Social Services and the Minister of Health. The letter, written to all municipalities, encouraged Community and Social Services service providers to consider implementing COVID-19 vaccine policies for their employees.

Mr. Frank stated that Administration had been considering the policy for some time. "We are asking Council to support Administration in implementing a Mandatory Vaccine Policy that has been drafted by our lawyer, so they are in full compliance with any legislation." He added that unvaccinated employees would have the choice to either get vaccinated, take a leave of absence, or do a rapid test every 72 hours at their expense."

Councillor Bruce Prestidge felt that the municipality was not the one that should be mandating anything. "That is a provincial matter and a federal matter, not municipal. They are just pushing it down the road for us because they don't want to deal with it." Councillor Dave Kusch wondered what the fallout would be if it were implemented. "In the health system, we've had nurses and everything walking off, and it put stress everywhere else. What does it look like for this organization if we do this?"

Mr. Frank said that he couldn't give a firm number on how many employees would be affected by mandating the vaccine. "I think it's less than five percent of people that are not in full compliance as of now. I can't give you that firm number."

Councillor Peter Kuelken said he didn't feel comfortable mandating something that a government entity isn't. "I don't see us as having a role in that. If they (provincial government) mandate that, we would probably have to follow that mandate anyway, so from my perspective, I think we are into something that isn't in our wheelhouse. I really have a problem with that."

Councillor Dean Williams agreed with his fellow councillors. "Do we have any disruptions currently because we don't have this? Are operations being affected? Is there something that I don't see that would warrant something like this besides the province trying to make us make that decision?" Mr. Frank said that the staff were still providing services. "There's disruptions in communications and productivity to whatever extent that can be quantified. I know that from an administrative level, it is more difficult to manage, but we've done it for the last two years."

Councillor Jeremy Wilhelm asked if requiring the vaccine moved them ahead, given that numbers are starting to fall Alberta-wide. "Are we creating a divide in our community where we could provide a better solution for this problem rather than forcing people to have vaccinations? I think we've done quite well with the limitations we've put in place with regard to masking, restricted access, etcetera. Do we absolutely have to go to the next step of requiring people to have vaccinations when what we've done up to this point seems to be working?"

He said he knows that there are people who are strongly for vaccination and admitted that he is fully vaccinated. "I believe in getting vaccinated, but I have a very, very tough time at this level of government, mandating people to be vaccinated and put something in their body they might not be comfortable doing. Even though I one hundred percent believe in it, I do understand people's hesitancy around it." Councillor Dave Kusch said that staff at the County, who have worked through the last two years shouldn't have their job and livelihood put "on the line" for something they are uncomfortable with doing.

Councillor Alan Deane said that he joined the majority of Council against the idea of a mandatory vaccine policy. "One of the things I'm not completely comfortable with is changing the conditions of employment for people and requiring the employee, who's had their condition of employment change, bear the cost of continuing to work. If they're not vaccinated and don't want to become vaccinated, they will have to spend money out of their pocket to provide a negative test. If you do the math, it will end up somewhere between $400-$500 a month out of their pocket to continue working."

He mentioned that other jurisdictions in the country had started to back away from the mandates. "They are backing away for a couple of reasons. One is that there's pressure on that system, and they need to retain all of the employees. The other reason is that those employees are protected by unions, and those unions are looking at ways to protect their employees, and one of those is to bring suits against their employer."

Councillor Wilhelm also spoke to the issue of having employees pay to keep their jobs. "We've changed some of these workers' contracts without them being part of the conversation, and then we are implementing a cost to their lives so that they can keep their job. I wonder if there's a way through this policy where Woodlands County can look like a leader in this position and not download that cost onto the employees as opposed to forcing them to pay to keep their job."

Mayor John Burrows joined the conversation. "One of the words I've really come to dislike over the past little while, since well before getting involved in Council, is the word safe. When somebody says that's not safe, I always replace it with an acceptable level of risk. There is nothing that is 100 percent safe. I'm trying to wrap my head around what exactly the problem is that we are trying to solve. Is it to get everybody back to work again and get the productivity up? How much productivity are we losing? Can you put a number on it? That way, we can decide if spending money on this one way or another is maybe worth it."

Councillor Deane made a motion to have Council support Administration in continuing to keep the workplace safe but not through a mandatory vaccine policy. Woodlands County Council voted unanimously to support the motion.

Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press

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