A sign advising mandatory wearing of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is shown in Montreal on Saturday, June 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughe

Unvaccinated employees could face masks, segregation upon return to office: Experts

Unvaccinated employees could face masks, segregation upon return to office: Experts

Unvaccinated workers returning to the office could be required to continue wearing masks, steer clear of common areas and face a staggered workday – or may even be asked to stay home, experts say.

As workplaces begin to reopen, employers are grappling with how to keep all workers safe – including those who are unvaccinated.

It’s a situation that risks stigmatizing vaccine holdouts and potentially triggering workplace anxiety for some, according to human resources experts.

Some employers have created incentives to encourage workers to get immunized against COVID-19, such as paid time off for inoculations and prizes like gift cards and company swag after a shot.

Others are considering policies that make vaccination a necessary condition of employment that could see workers who choose not to be vaccinated for personal reasons out of work.

“We’ve had some clients that work in an office setting that want to propose a mandatory vaccine policy in their workplace,” said Olivia Cicchini, an employment law specialist with Peninsula Canada, a Toronto-based human resources and health and safety consulting firm.

“If you can prove that you need that requirement, like if your workers are seeing clients or you don’t have enough room for physical distancing, then you might be able to justify it.”

However, people who cannot be immunized for medical or religious reasons protected under human rights legislation as well as most unionized workers would be exempt from a mandatory vaccine requirement, she said.

“If your workplace is in Canada and it’s not unionized, employers can terminate employees for any reason at any time as long as that reason is not discriminatory,” Cicchini said.

“If an employee chooses not to get vaccinated just because of personal choice, the employer could choose to terminate them on a without cause basis and provide them with their termination pay.”

However, rules that single out employees who have opted out of vaccines – such as mandatory masks, a staggered workday or the segregation of unvaccinated workers to certain floors or areas of the office – raise concerns around privacy and stigmatization, experts say.

“Their vaccine status becomes very apparent to everyone in the office,” said David Zweig, associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at the University of Toronto.

“It becomes a bit of a privacy issue because suddenly, everyone knows that you did not get vaccinated.”

Employers should first develop incentives to encourage vaccine-hesitant employees to get the jab, he said.

For example, Loblaw Companies Ltd. provides workers with up to three hours of paid time off for a vaccination, while Maple Leaf Foods has held multiple on-site vaccine clinics for its workers.

Still, while reducing the barriers to getting a vaccine and providing incentives are helpful, an employer’s top priority remains the collective safety of all employees, Zweig said.

“It means that if you’re someone who’s unvaccinated, you’ll probably have to wear (personal protective equipment) when you go back into the office,” Zweig said. “That’s a reasonable expectation to protect the safety of everyone else who is vaccinated.”

He added: “The key here is for employers to do whatever is necessary to ensure that people are safe and feel safe and mitigate some of these anxieties surrounding the return to work.”

If unvaccinated workers are uncomfortable being singled out in the office, Zweig said there may be options to reasonably accommodate them through measures like a segregated workspace, staggered workday, different common areas or continued work from home.

Yet there could be career repercussions for workers who choose to continue working from home to avoid being vaccinated, he said.

“It’s probably guaranteed to have an impact on your career progression,” Zweig said. “If you’re working from home, but your team is all back in the office, you’re out of the loop.”

Ultimately, if someone is choosing not to be vaccinated for personal reasons “they have a choice to make,” he said.

“They have to deal with the consequences of their actions,” Zweig said. “They’ll have to wear PPE when they’re at work and if someone unvaccinated is uncomfortable with that, then they have a choice to make.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2021.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus