Stress levels are already high in workplaces across the province what with forced closures, labour shortages and supply chain disruptions on top of the social distancing and PPE requirements to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the province announced this week that all provincial employees must be vaccinated who have contact with "vulnerable populations" and public health officials are recommending that private businesses and organizations do the same and "consider" mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees, there’s lots of tiptoeing around that issue going on right now, with many employers just embarking on the process of deciding what to do.
Some have already taken action.
Canada Life was a full day ahead of the vaccine mandate for provincial employees. In a company-wide internal memo from company CEO Paul Mahon and COO Jeff Macoun on Monday morning, it said that as of Sept. 30, "Canada Life will require all employees and other individuals in our offices (including contractors and advisors) to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. For those unable to be fully vaccinated, Rapid Antigen Testing (Rapid Testing) will be implemented. This protocol will remain in place until further advised."
But it’s likely Canada Life is one of the only large employers to have done so.
The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce has implemented such a mandate as well, but CEO Loren Remillard said it had already determined that 100 per cent of its staff was already vaccinated.
"I am hearing from more and more business who are moving in that direction," he said.
“Mandating vaccines in the region where there tends to be a different demographic is going to be very difficult." — Al Babiuk, CEO of Loewen Windows in Steinbach
That may be the case among the small and medium sized members of the the Winnipeg Chamber, but there is a much different story, for instance, among the manufacturing sector.
Ron Koslowsky, head of the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said that after a meeting this week with about 20 of his board members, "I don’t think there was one of them saying they would force employees to vaccinate. That is just not in the cards."
That’s not to say those employers are or have been cavalier about the issue.
Al Babiuk, the CEO of Loewen Windows in Steinbach, in the heart of the vaccine hesitant region, said, "We understand the concept of requiring vaccination to increase the rigor of the control of the virus. But we don’t have a conclusion as to how we would execute it (a vaccine mandate)."
Loewen has conducted several pop-up vaccination clinics, as have many employers, but Babiuk said the region has low vaccination rates and that reality is reflected in its workforce. Fortunately, Loewen’s production environment is set up well for social distancing and have had very few infections.
"Mandating vaccines in the region where there tends to be a different demographic is going to be very difficult," he said. "We have assessed what that would look like and it would go against the grain of a higher level of (people) not comfortable with the vaccines.
Maple Leaf Foods, the multi-billion dollar Canadian packaged meat company with several facilities in Manitoba, has mandated that their Toronto-area head office staff be vaccinated but it is not mandating it for its production facilities including its large pork plants in Brandon and Winnipeg.
In a statement to staff last week, Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain said, "Our front-line team members do not have a work from home option, so while we are providing every possible support to help them choose to be vaccinated through on-site vaccination clinics that have already occurred at several of our sites and through paid time off to secure vaccinations at local clinics, we are not requiring proof of vaccination. We also continue to operate vaccination awareness campaigns across our organization."
Companies including the law firm, TDS and Wawanesa Insurance told the Free Press that determining whether or not to impose vaccine mandates is now top priority.
Cindy Cannon, manager of marketing and business development at TDS, said, "Our CEO just circulated an internal email letting us know we’ll have something put together but we are not in position to say what we are doing just yet."
Legal repercussions and off-putting workers in a terribly tight labour market are some of the deterrents of imposing a vaccine mandate for some employers.
"One of the biggest problems for our members right now is keeping and finding employees," Koslowsky said. "The last thing they want to so is to antagonize people saying they can’t work unless they’re fully vaccinated."
Remillard said it’s very important to any employer considering mandatory vaccination to make sure to take steps to accommodate staff that are not vaccinated and don’t intend to get the jab.
Koslowsky said concerns about potential legal action over human rights violations regarding restricting someone’s right to work is something that no employer wants to deal with.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.