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Arbitrator denies unions’ appeal to stay City of Richmond’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate

The City of Richmond implemented its COVID-19 vaccination policy last October
COVID vaccination
COVID vaccine being administered

Several City of Richmond employees won’t be going back to work, after an arbitrator shot down a request to stay the city’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy.

Thirty-nine city employees, including nine firefighters, refused to comply with the policy by its Dec. 20 deadline, according to arbitration documents.

The three unions representing the employees said some were concerned they couldn’t afford their homes or medical treatments because of the policy, while others were worried about the impact unpaid leave would have on their children, according to the documents.

But in his Jan. 12 decision, arbitrator Randall Noonan said that while he understood “some union members who choose not to comply with the policy may suffer significant consequences to their personal lives,” he didn’t have enough evidence to prove there is an acceptable alternative to the city’s mandate that would “meet the goals of preventing the spread of the virus while eliminating those personal consequences.”

Richmond city council made the decision to implement the COVID-19 vaccine policy in October, giving all city employees and council members until Dec. 20 to show proof of vaccination, except for those with a medical exemption.

Those who didn’t comply by the deadline were put on unpaid leave.

The unions, IAFF Local 1286, Cupe Local 718 and Cupe Local 394 – which represent the city’s firefighters, inside workers and outside workers – have filed grievances against the city’s policy, which will go to arbitration in March.

In the meantime, the unions filed an interim application to stay the city’s vaccine mandate until after the arbitration process, or, alternatively, allow certain groups of employees – such as those who don’t interact with the public or who work from home 50 per cent or more of the time – be exempt from the policy.

The unions also said they wouldn’t oppose amending the policy to include testing as an alternative to vaccination.

The City of Richmond opposed the unions’ applications and argued that the efficacy of the policy would be impacted if certain groups of employees were exempt.

According to the decision, the city decided testing was not an “effective option,” after reviewing the provincial and federal governments’ vaccine mandates and efficacy of rapid testing.

“A concern is that testing is reactive rather than proactive and that a testing option increases the risk that asymptomatic individuals may infect other employees or members of the public,” Noonan’s decision reads.

But Jim Dickson, president of IAFF Local 1286, said the city’s policy is “forcing some members of his local to choose between getting a vaccine that they do not want and giving up on their careers as firefighters,” according to the decision. He also noted that they would lose their seniority, officer status, sick bank and vacation entitlement if they found jobs with other fire departments.

The decision also outlines concerns shared by some of the firefighters, including two worried about the long-term effects of the COVID-19 vaccine on their pre-existing medical conditions. While they asked for medical exemption letters, their doctors didn’t agree to this.

Several of the firefighters also said that, if the policy isn’t stayed, they will have to list their homes for sale and move out of the Lower Mainland – meaning they won’t be able to return to work in Richmond.

Other firefighters said they were concerned their kids wouldn’t be able to stay in school and would lose friends, while some said they wouldn’t be able to afford their children’s mental health treatments if they lose their income.

CUPE Local 718 president Dal Benning noted that other municipalities had provided alternatives for employees who are not vaccinated by choice, such as testing and risk assessment for each job.

According to the decision, Benning also said several CUPE members told him that their marital relationships will suffer, one will retire instead of being vaccinated and some said they won’t be able to afford medications for family members.

One CUPE member also told the union they were worried about how the loss of income would impact their housing needs, ability to buy food and “the effect of those things on their PTSD symptoms.”

Another CUPE member said they felt “forced to get vaccinated in order to support their small child,” while one felt “coerced into treatment.” Yet another CUPE member felt a loss of fulfillment and connection with co-workers and the community.

CUPE argued the safety measures and protocols in place before the vaccination policy was implemented have “proven largely effective” in preventing workplace transmission and the policy is “addressing a problem that largely does not exist in relation to the unions’ members and is doing so in the most intrusive way possible.”

According to the decision, the city provided data which stated there have been 27 “workplace exposure events” since the start of the pandemic, and one known case of workplace transmission involving two employees.

IAFF, meanwhile, argued “current data shows that current vaccines have limited effectiveness in relation to the spread of the Omicron variant.”

CUPE also argued that the city doesn’t require the public to be fully vaccinated to use some of its facilities, and that there is a “strong privacy impact of the policy,” including that those who don’t comply “will have their vaccination status broadcast to the entire workplace,” the decision reads.

However, the city disagreed and said being placed on leave “will only indicate an unwillingness to show proof of vaccination,” which may not be related to actual vaccination status.

Furthermore, the city argued that even if being placed on leave revealed vaccination status, the privacy concerns are “outweighed by the risk of bodily harm and or death if transmission cases occur in the workplace.”

In his decision, Noonan said the unions’ arguments failed “to give proper weight to the preventative element” of Richmond’s vaccination policy.”

Noonan also found the health and safety risks to other employees and members of the public outweigh “the intrusion into privacy and bodily integrity rights” of union members who choose not to comply with the policy, which is intended to reduce the risk of spread of the virus.

Noonan denied the unions’ application to stay the policy pending the outcome of the arbitration process, including their alternative request that the policy should not apply to employees who work from home most of the time or have limited contact with others.

“If I were to grant the order sought by the unions, and subsequently employees or others were exposed to the virus and became seriously ill or died, there is no amount of a monetary award that could remedy that,” Noonan said.