OTTAWA — Employees in the core federal public sector who have not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 were to be put on unpaid leave Monday, unless they were already granted an accommodation.
The policy could potentially leave more than 1,000 workers without pay and unable to access employment insurance benefits.
As of Nov. 3, the vast majority — about 95 per cent — of federal public servants were reported to be fully vaccinated.
Of the 267,222employees who declared their status, a little over 3,150 have requested some kind of accommodation so they can work without a full slate of vaccines.
The government said 1,255 workers reported that they are completely unvaccinated, which represents about 0.5 per cent of employees who've declared their status.
There are 7,284 workers with only one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. They have been given 10 weeks after their first dose to receive their second shot before they are also put on unpaid leave.
The government said it would accommodate employees who cannot be vaccinated for health, religious, or other reasons protected under the Human Rights Act, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned at the outset of the policy that exemptions and accommodations would be difficult to obtain.
The Treasury Board Secretariat has not yet released how many unvaccinated or partially vaccinated employees have received some kind of accommodation, such as the opportunity to work from home.
Federal public sector unions are still waiting to find out how many of their members have received special accommodations, and how many have been put on unpaid leave.
The unions have said they plan to file grievances if they feel an employee's human rights were not respected.
The largest federal union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, has encouraged members to be vaccinated if possible.
Some federal workers have chosen not to be vaccinated and that is their choice, said union president Chris Aylward, but the government's policy is clear about the consequences.
Still, any members who feel they've been treated unfairly or had their rights violated should file a grievance, and the union will handle them on a case-by-case basis, he said.
"If they have legitimate concerns about how the policy is being unreasonably applied to them then they should bring them forward," Aylward said.
The union believes there is a "strong possibility" that the government policy will withstand any legal challenges put forward.
The policy will be reviewed every six months, and is expected to remain in effect for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The next step will be navigating federal employees' return to the office, Aylward said. While the union has concerns about whether health and safety committees have been appropriately consulted on the plans, he said it's encouraging to know that employees are vaccinated.
"That’s really encouraging to see, the high number of members who have attested to their vaccination status," he said.
Trudeau said the high vaccination rates of federal employees is a reason to be proud and impressed by the commitment of federal public servants.
When asked about whether he believes the employee attestations are true, and why the government didn't demand proof of vaccination, Trudeau said he does not mistrust them.
"The people who've been working so hard to keep Canadians safe through this difficult year and a half, of course they're going to step up and do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe," Trudeau said at a news conference in Edmonton on Monday.
Departments will be auditing attestations and consent forms, and employees found to provide a false attestation will be punished with disciplinary action, including firings.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2021.
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press