Unvaccinated workers: Can you ask not to work with them?

So far in Canada, more than 40 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. However, many have yet to get their final dose. Some will also be hesitant to get the vaccine or not be able to for health reasons.

In the workplace, vaccination statuses could become a sensitive topic for workers. Those who are fully vaccinated may not feel comfortable working with those who are unvaccinated. So, what rights do workers have?

Can workers demand not to work next to unvaccinated coworkers?

While workers can certainly raise any concerns they may have, there are no laws in Canada that require employers to accommodate this request. If a worker does ask not to work next to an unvaccinated colleague, it will be up to the employer to either work out an accommodation or to deny this request. They will have to consider their employee’s wishes and balance these with the needs of the business.

Privacy considerations

It is also unlikely that the employer would have to accommodate such a request because, theoretically, workers should not know each others vaccination status. Since vaccination has not been made mandatory in Canada, vaccination status is considered personal medical information. Employers cannot disclose their workers’ vaccination status to anyone unless they have their consent. The only way a worker should be finding out their coworker’s vaccination status, is if the coworker told them themselves.

Employers’ duty to protect workers

Employers have a duty to protect the safety of their employees in the workplace. Regarding vaccines, employers should be following the health and safety guidelines of their local public health unit. In many cases, measures such as distancing and masking are still required in workplaces regardless of vaccination status.

Educating staff and working safely

Employees who are concerned about working with unvaccinated coworkers can be reassured by their employers that all public health guidelines are being followed to protect them in the workplace. It is yet unclear whether being fully vaccinated prevents the transmission of the virus. Educating staff on the latest vaccine information, how to work safely and what steps are being taken to protect them can clear up their concerns.

Finding out the cause of workers’ concerns

However, employers are advised to have a discussion with their workers if they have concerns. Their reasoning for requesting to work separately from unvaccinated coworkers might be linked to personal circumstances, such as a disability, medical condition or pregnancy. In such cases, it may be in the employer’s interests to accommodate the employee.

Types of accommodation

In the workplace, accommodation might entail giving workers a separate workstation and installing additional plexiglass barriers. If further distancing is not possible at work or there are still concerns, employers can consider allowing the employee to work remotely. It will be key to have these discussions with concerned staff and strive to work out an amicable solution for both parties.

Patrick Stepanian is legal manager at HR and health and safety consulting firm Peninsula Canada.