District council discussions surrounding a vaccination policy for District of Muskoka staff proved to be spirited on October 18 with several councillors calling on a mandatory vaccination policy for staff.
The issue came up when District director of human resources Catherine Glover recommended a vaccination policy that would ask for vaccination verification or require weekly testing, rather than mandatory vaccination. In other words, staff would have to provide either proof of vaccination, proof of vaccination exemption, or undergo education and weekly testing.
Glover told council staff were not recommending mandatory vaccination due to the uncertainty involving the legal implications of such a policy as well as the possibility of running into staff shortages as a result of such a policy and the impacts that would have on the operations and responsibilities of the upper-tier municipality.
“If the District is able to obtain free rapid antigen tests, those will be provided to unvaccinated employees at no cost. However, if free tests are not available, then any associated costs for testing will [be]the responsibility of the employee. For employees on an approved accommodation plan under the Human Rights Code, any associated costs for testing will be borne by the District,” added Glover in her report.
“I just can’t cower down to these individuals,” said Councillor Paul Wiancko who called on mandatory vaccination for staff. “If they don’t want to get the salaries they get from the… District and all the benefits for their families then maybe they should go somewhere else. The only way you’re going to force these individuals to get vaccinated is to basically threaten their livelihood and so on.”
Wiancko also pointed to Glover’s report which suggests spending $40,000 for a six-month period on a position that would monitor compliance with the proposed policy, and referred to it as having to hire a “babysitter.”
“What happens after six months? I don’t think these anti-vaxxers are going to continue doing the testing in the long term. We are a public organization. We meet the public every day. We should only accept the best for our staff…” he said, again calling on mandatory vaccination.
Councillor Heidi Lorenz expressed similar sentiments. She said staff who refuse to get vaccinated should get tested on their own time and wanted any policy adopted by council to reflect that.
“If this is the policy that we’re going to be going with I definitely think that they should be footing the bill for this. You know, if we’re paying money for somebody to babysit them, I think they should be paying the bill regardless if there are free tests available,” she said. “I’ve had it with these people. They’re the reason we’re still in this…”
In terms of nondisclosure policy, Lorenz said she’d like to know when someone isn’t vaccinated because they have a higher likelihood of getting it and spreading it. “Quite honestly, I don’t want to be around them. I don’t want to be in a room with them because they have a higher chance of carrying the virus and I don’t want to take it to my older family members…”
However, she said having some sort of policy in place is better than none at all and would be voting in favour of the policy at hand but would prefer to see mandatory vaccination. “These are good jobs, I’d suggest they’re some of the best jobs in the District and quite frankly if you can’t do something that you’re healthy enough to do, considerate enough to do, and smart enough to do, are these the people we really want working for the District?” she questioned.
Councillor Nancy Alcock said she concurred with much of what Lorenz and Wiancko had to say. For those who choose not to be vaccinated, she said getting testing every week isn’t enough.
Councillor Phil Harding also weighed in and said save for medical exemptions he also thought vaccination for District staff ought to be mandatory. He also said staff should be tested on their own personal time and suggested they ought to be tested more frequently at least every 48 to 72 hours.
“I too feel the way to go is mandatory vaccinations,” wighed in Councillor Tim Withey who was also joined by councillors Peter Koetsier, Peter Cooper and others in calling for mandatory vaccination.
Withey said if council sticks to the suggested policy, he also wants to see more frequent testing at staff’s own time and expense. “I believe in making it as inconvenient as possible for these people,” he said.
Koetsier said he’d rather have unvaccinated employees quitting due to mandatory vaccination than those who get vaccinated getting sick because of the unvaccinated “and having to take sick leave for lengthy periods of time.” Koetsier went as far as stating that those who choose not to get vaccinated “are choosing not to participate in our society. They should choose to hand in their OHIP card. Maybe that’s a little harsh but I’m sorry, to be part of this community means you should have yourself vaccinated to help protect the community.”
Councillor Karin Terziano said she would also prefer to see mandatory vaccination. “I don’t believe once a week is satisfactory.” She said in Huntsville a mandatory policy was also discussed but other circumstances factored into council’s decision (a discussion held in closed session) to stay away from mandatory vaccinations at this time.
Councillor Graydon Smith had a different stance. He said the issue should be between the District CAO and staff. “We are not human resource managers and a bunch of anecdotal stories or opinions about why we think someone should or should not do something I don’t think adds a lot to the decision-making. But be that as it may, here we are.”
Based on a question from Smith, Glover said a rough calculation taking into consideration existing vacancies at the District and the number of staff who have reported that they continue to be unvaccinated, if District were to institute a mandatory vaccination policy it could translate into about a 20 per cent vacancy rate, said Glover. “So that I think will have implications on operations and customer service going forward,” she added.
Smith said although he’s fully vaccinated, council needs to consider possible vacancies in any policy surrounding vaccinations. “We have services to provide to the general public and if we can’t do that then we’re going to have a hell of a problem.”
He said council will have to come up with a plan on how to fill those vacancies as well.
Councillor Sandy Cairns also called on mandatory vaccinations. She said she’s worried and concerned about those who choose not to get vaccinated.
“The science tells us that the vaccines do work regardless of what people think.” Cairns was willing to put a motion on the floor to make vaccination mandatory, if not, she said she wanted the suggested testing frequency to increase.
Councillor Brian Thompson said given all the protocols around sanitation and the wearing of masks the District has been doing, it appears it has worked. “I think the number of occurrences we’ve had have been minimal if at all, I’m not aware of any,” he said. Thompson said he felt comfortable with going ahead with the recommendation before council while increasing testing frequency.
“Again, if we follow through with the protocols that we’ve been following for the last 18 months or so I don’t think we’re really endangering ourselves any more than we’ve been endangering ourselves or our public over the last 18 months…”
Councillor Terry Glover said he is in support of everyone being vaccinated but he’s also aware of concerns surrounding service levels and said he was comfortable moving forward with staff’s proposal.
He said it is obvious that council is looking for more testing and asked Catherine Glover whether she had a recommendation. She suggested twice per work week.
District chair John Klinck weighed in and said he was proud of council members for getting vaccinated and made it known that he personally also supported mandatory vaccination.
Council continued to debate the issue. Councillors Bob Lacroix and Rick Maloney reminded council that they were dealing with their staff.
“I know this issue is splitting our communities and our family… I think we’ve lost a little bit of empathy for people who have issues whether or not it’s mental [health]issues or just a strong stance against vaccinations. You know everyone has their beliefs. We certainly live in a society that bends towards helping everyone but in this case we don’t seem to want to bend, but to me, it’s a personal choice. I’m double vaccinated and I wish everybody would get double vaccinated but I still believe that it should be up to the individual,” said Lacroix.
Councillor Mike Peppard said he is also double vaccinated and said he believes everyone should be. “And the few people I’ve spoken to who are anti-vaxxers have absolutely no good reason for not doing it except for misinformation on the Web. Having said that, I don’t want to alienate five, 10 per cent of the population and make them feel like they’re not part of society. I think giving them the option to [take]the test a couple of times a week is something that we need to do at this point in time.”
In the end, council agreed to move forward with a policy that would require staff who don’t want to be vaccinated to get tested every 48 hours starting November 1 at their cost. Council also reserved the option to revisit the issue in the future, gather more information, and/or implement mandatory vaccination at that point.
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