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Major Public Sector Unions Challenge Federal Vaccine Mandates

By Andrew Chen May 19, 2022

Three major public sector unions are challenging federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates for government employees, saying that putting unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave when they could have worked from home is “unjust.”

The Liberal government’s mandatory vaccination policies, introduced on Oct. 6, 2021, required all federal employees to be fully vaccinated with two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, including those working remotely. Workers who were unwilling to be fully vaccinated or refused to disclose their vaccination status would be put on leave without pay.

In late March, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) filed a policy grievance on behalf of public servants who were placed on leave without pay due to these vaccine policies, which “constituted an abuse of management authority” since the remote workers are unlikely to return to physical workplaces in the long term, therefore posing “no reasonable threat to the health and safety of their workplaces,” the group said in a news release.

“As the pandemic has evolved and the science has developed, we believe continuing to put unvaccinated employees on leave without pay is a harsh administrative measure that can be considered disciplinary and without just cause,” said PSAC, which represents roughly 230,000 public sector workers across Canada.

Over the past week, two other major public sector unions, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE)—representing roughly 60,000 and 20,000 public servants respectively—are also taking action to challenge the federal vaccine mandates.

“We continue to support vaccination. But given … the loosening of the COVID restrictions and the shifting landscape, we’re of the opinion that employer’s policy right now is unreasonable. These members can work from home,” PIPSC President Jennifer Carr told the National Post.

“Effectively, we think it is punitive and an abuse of management authority.”

As of March 29, over 1,800 government employees remained on unpaid leave due to the vaccination policy, according to data the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) recently shared with unions.

The government’s long overdue review of its vaccine policy is another source of frustration for the unions. According to TBS’s vaccine policy, the government’s chief human resources officer is responsible for reviewing the need of the policy and its contents “at a minimum every 6 months” and reporting those results to the TBS president.

This means the first review since the policy’s introduction in October 2021 was due by April 6, 2022—a date that union leaders said long passed without the TBS giving any signs of releasing it publicly.

“Not only have they failed not to give us a position, they failed to let us know when they’re going to come up with a position,” Carr said. “We had a call (on May 17), and they still can’t give us a tentative date.”

“At this point, it seems like it’s in a black hole,” she added. “That leaves a lot of public servants in limbo.”

In a news release on May 17, CAPE said it has recently filed two policy grievances against the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which led to roughly 100 of its members being suspended without pay.

“CAPE believes the evolving context makes it difficult to continue justifying the terms of the current [vaccine policy],” the group said, adding that it continues to uphold its original position that “members who do not wish to be vaccinated should be accommodated rather than suspended without pay.”

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