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Ask a Vexxpert Podcast Episode 17: The Vaccination Debate in the Workplace

6 min. readbyVexxit StaffonSeptember 02, 2021
Employers can agree that a safe return to work is necessary, but the topic of mandatory vaccinations is a controversial one. We look at the rights and responsibilities held by employers and employees, along with the role government has played in the vaccination debate. We also address the effects of the pandemic and the silver linings that have come out of it. Joining our discussion today is Nicole Stewart, Vice President of Human Resources at Payworks and Bram Strain, President and CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba.

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As employers think about what life in the new normal means for their workplaces, vaccination policies have come to the forefront. There’s the safety, rights and comforts of employees to consider, along with a myriad of other things your employee handbook probably doesn’t cover (yet).

In today’s podcast episode, we call on two members of our business community who are experts in workplace policies and procedures, and navigating these new waters themselves.

Nicole Stewart is Vice President of Human Resources at Payworks, a Canada-wide company that provides payroll and workforce management solutions. Payworks has been recognized as one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies since 2012 and as one of Canada’s Top Small and Medium Employers in 2021.

Bram Strain is CEO and President of the Business Council of Manitoba, a group of business leaders who team with other business and government leaders to drive change within the province they work and live. Their members include 85 of the largest employers in Manitoba, but also work closely with government at every level to help influence policy that affects businesses, employees and the local economy.

Employers have adjusted and then adjusted again, from shutdowns to remote workforces to figuring out scenarios for all involved as a return to the workplace becomes possible.

For Nicole, understanding what employees want has guided her company’s path. By engaging with employees through surveys and other means, Payworks listened to its employees and moved to a remote environment. Now, Nicole says, they’re again dealing with uncharted waters.

“What is the next safety procedure to make sure that our employees are safe?” she asks. “I wish it was as simple as a life jacket, but in that case these life jackets might be vaccinations and what does that look like for our workforce and our employees across all the provinces?”

Some companies are enforcing mandatory vaccinations as a safety measure to protect their employees and the customers they interact with. This, of course, has drawn criticism and questions about employees’ rights and privacy.

In a recent CBC article, an employment lawyer states that safety always trumps privacy. So, how do you handle this situation in a matter that respects the legalities and your employees’ concerns?

By doing your due diligence, Bram suggests.

There are checklists and resources to help you along the way (we’ve noted some of those here).

“As long as you’re looking at those and you’re making accommodations where accommodations can be made—if they’re reasonable—those things will all be looked upon favourably if and when something is challenged,” Bram adds.

There are employers in the public sector and even school systems that already have vaccination policies in place—maybe not as they relate to the COVID-19 vaccine, but for other communicable diseases.

This goes to show that we’ve dipped our toes into these waters before, Bram says, though we’re now jumping in headfirst with the controversy over COVID-19 vaccination policies.

There’s also something to be said for the safety practices that have taken us to this point, Bram adds.

“There’s been a lot of lessons learned,” he says, explaining that social distancing, cleaning protocols and air ventilation are all things we can adopt, with vaccination being the next step. For those who can’t or won’t get vaccinated, COVID-19 testing is an accommodation employers can make.

He references a Government of Manitoba report that its employees who work with vulnerable populations will be tested up to three times per week, if they’re not fully vaccinated.

When deciding whether to adopt a mandatory vaccination policy, Bram says it’s worth considering your company’s risk level.

“There’s a big difference if you have 1,000 people on a production floor or five people in a smaller office space,” he says. “They have to weigh the risk against the reward.”

Bram’s mention of government policies is timely, considering Canada is prepping for a federal election. On the federal front, Bram feels most parties agree that vaccination is the way forward. He also touches on the discrepancies between federal and provincial or territorial policies regarding COVID-19 and how it’s led to some confusion—and frustration.

Also frustrating? The lack of face-to-face collaboration through this pandemic, whether brainstorming in a boardroom or chatting on a lunch break. It’s led to a shift in workplace culture, Nicole says, which has taken some getting used to.

“I’ve learned that culture actually isn’t the building,” she explains, “it’s the people within the building.”

Employee engagement is a big one in maintaining that strong company culture. Statistics agree, with a StatsCan report correlating a lack of interaction with co-workers and a lack of productivity.

Keeping engagement high is a benefit to companies and employees alike, as is looking at the positives—like the advantages to the technology we’ve all come to embrace and realizing that others are in the same boat as you are.

“I’m in those uncharted waters with, I don’t even know how many other boats,” Nicole says. “We’re putting our heads together and we’re trying to figure out how to get through, how to make our employees’ experience the best it can be, and how to create safe environments for our workforce.”

Check out our podcast for the full discussion on vaccination policies and navigating these new waters. You can also reach out to our guests, Nicole Stewart, through Payworks or LinkedIn, and Bram Strain through the Business Council of Manitoba or LinkedIn.

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