Each employer will have to determine its own policy
by Rhonda B. Levy, George Vassos and Sari Springer
With increasing concerns over COVID-19 variants and the recent acceleration of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout to Ontario’s public, Ontario Premier Doug Ford was recently asked if the Government of Ontario would consider passing legislation that would allow employees to take three hours’ paid time off to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Premier Ford indicated he would be in favour of allowing front-line health-care workers to take such paid time off, but he said nothing about workers in other sectors.1
Each employer will have to determine its own policy and will have to take into account any minimum requirements if and when legislation is passed in Ontario. As two doses are required for three of the four vaccines currently authorized for use in Canada, employers will have to consider their policy for each dose.
As previously discussed, the federal and provincial governments have not made vaccines mandatory. Prime Minister Trudeau has promised that all Canadians could be vaccinated by September 2021 if they want to be. Any vaccination requirement imposed by employers would have to be justified as a necessary measure pursuant to occupational health and safety legislation, and balanced against any applicable human rights and privacy legislation, and any guidance from the federal and provincial governments. At this early stage of limited vaccine availability, however, most employers will likely be strongly encouraging employee vaccination by providing education/referral to resources about its benefits, rather than mandating it.2
An employee’s employment contract may entitle an employee to paid time off to get the vaccine, or to paid sick leave, which the employee might be able to utilize to get the vaccine. In the absence of any contractual right to time off, Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA) does not provide for paid leave to get vaccines. Employees might be able to use unpaid sick days; under the ESA, they are entitled to three such days after two consecutive weeks of service. Some employees cannot afford the reduction in income that would ensue, however, and this may cause them to choose their income over the vaccination.
Although not required to do so by law, some employers have already removed this deterrent by advising employees that if they choose to get vaccinated, they will be provided with paid hours off, with additional paid hours should a second dose be required.
The number of paid hours offered seems to vary between two to four hours per dose.
An employee may refuse to be vaccinated on a ground covered by human rights legislation, such as religion or disability, or for a valid medical reason, such as an underlying medical condition that would make it dangerous for the employee to be vaccinated. Employers should be mindful that such an employee may claim that they are being treated differently from employees who get vaccinated and receive paid time off to do so.
Whether employers are going to mandate or strongly encourage employees to get vaccinated, it may be in employers’ interest to demonstrate flexibility by providing paid time off since widespread adoption of the vaccine will save lives, build herd immunity, and accelerate a return to normal living, normal business, and an improved economy.