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‘Penalizing and terminating’ nurses not the way to address vaccine hesitancy, ONA says

Health care unions recommend members be vaccinated against COVID-19, but say firing workers isn’t the way forward
Health Sciences North.

Local unions representing 50 of the employees terminated by Health Sciences North for not complying with its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy said that grievances will be handled on an individual basis.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) and the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) did not specify whether any grievances have been filed locally, but they did indicate that they have a legal duty to represent their members when requested. 

Health Sciences North said in a statement on Wednesday that it terminated 53 employees (1.4 per cent of its workforce) who did not provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination by the end of November. 

In total, 26 nursing and paramedical staff represented by the ONA and 24 clerical and service staff represented by CUPE had their employment terminated for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“We encourage and recommend that healthcare workers receive the vaccine if they can,” said Sheree Bond, media relations officer at ONA.

“The ONA supports education and addressing vaccine hesitancy, not penalizing and terminating nurses when we need them most.” 

Bond added that the union supports the regular testing of employees as a safety measure and reassignment wherever possible. 

“The ONA will deal with individual situations of declining the vaccine under the provisions of the Collective Agreement, provincial laws on consent, and the Human Rights Code,” she said. 

COVID-19 vaccination is only one component of “a number of health and safety infection control programs” that employers should have in place, said the statement. 

“We urge all employers not to rely solely on vaccinations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to remain vigilant to protect all employees, especially in light of emerging variants,” said the ONA.

“The ONA expects all employers to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and take every precaution reasonably necessary to protect the health and safety of workers.”

This includes easy access to, and the use of, N95 respirators and other personal protective equipment, social distancing where possible, and other public health measures.

A spokesperson for CUPE said that the union takes a similar stance to the ONA. 

“Everyone who can get vaccinated against COVID-19 should get vaccinated against COVID-19,” said Stella Yeadon, communications officer at CUPE. 

“As a union, we recognize our obligation to those members who are not vaccinated.”

CUPE said that vaccination programs are most effective when they include “strong elements of education and encouragement.’ 

“We encourage local unions to work with employers and public health to provide vaccine education materials or presentations,” said Yeadon. 

“Unvaccinated workers need to be provided with an opportunity to speak confidentially with a medical professional so they can better understand the benefits of vaccination. Employers should accommodate these appointments.”

The union added that vaccine policies must accommodate the small number of workers who cannot get vaccinated for medical or religious reasons protected under human rights legislation. 

“Measures such as alternate work arrangements, screening, and proactive testing before entering the workplace can be effective,” said CUPE. 

“Harassment and shaming workers who refuse vaccination is never appropriate, and vaccine policies are not a replacement for personal protective equipment, proper ventilation, and thorough cleaning regimes.” 

The union said that it welcomes efforts to ensure safer workplaces and increase vaccination rates. 

“This includes increasing vaccine accessibility for workers, accommodating workers who are not yet fully vaccinated, and the small number of those who cannot be,” said CUPE. 

A spokesperson for HSN said the hospital implemented a COVID-19 vaccination policy for all new hires at the beginning of September. 

The policy was revised to include all existing employees, including credentialed professional staff, learners, and volunteers, on Nov. 1. 

“At the time, HSN had 266 or seven per cent of its employees who had yet to provide evidence of first dose of COVID-19,” said the spokesperson. 

The hospital put 76 employees on unpaid leave for not complying with the vaccination policy on Nov. 15. 

“On Nov. 29 and 30, HSN regretfully terminated 14 full-time employees, 32 part-time employees and seven casual workers who made the choice to not comply with the mandatory policy,” said the statement. 

“HSN respects the decision of these unvaccinated employees who, for reasons that are personal to them, chose to leave the organization.” 

At this time, all credentialed professional staff, learners, and active on-site volunteers in addition to 99.7 per cent of employees at HSN are vaccinated. 

“One employee has an approved medical exemption, and 12 exemptions (0.3 per cent) are pending additional medical documentation and approval. The staff with approved or pending exemptions are required to submit rapid antigen test results twice per week,” said HSN. 

“The employees who have only their first dose are required to provide evidence of their second dose of COVID-19 vaccination by January 2022.”

Colleen Romaniuk is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at The Sudbury Star. The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

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About the Author: Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Colleen Romaniuk is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, a Government of Canada program, at the Sudbury Star.
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