Can An Employer Force You to Get The Covid-19 Vaccine?

After well over a year of lock downs, remote work, closures, and stress, BC is starting to open up and get back to something that strongly resembles normalcy. This means that for many people, it’s a return to the workplace or starting to look for work, depending on the situation they found themselves in. It also means asking questions and fighting about the big thing that is getting us out: the covid-19 vaccine.

One of the reasons for the opening up is the fact that so many people have been vaccinated, either with just the first dose or with both doses. But there is some vaccine hesitancy, plus there are simply those who cannot receive the vaccination by order of their doctor. This may lead you to wonder: can an employer force you to get the Covid-19 vaccine?

(As a note: I heartily encourage vaccinations as they are the main thing that will get us out of this pandemic and protect others. But there are those who are medically compromised who may not be able to receive it, may have religious beliefs that forbid it, or other issues which is why we are touching on this here. But speaking for myself, I got jabbed and will get my second dose as well).

What the Law Says About the Covid-19 Vaccine

In BC, most workplaces do not have a legal mechanic to force employees to get vaccinated, so vaccination policies are pretty hard to enforce. If an employer tried and fired employees for not getting their jab, they could be dealing with a wrongful termination claim.

Ok, but don’t get all smug just yet because employers have ways to work around this:

  • Employers can seek legal advice to see if their workplace may be legally required to mandate vaccinations for health and safety reasons.
  • Employers can require new hires to be vaccinated. There’s nothing legally wrong with refusing to hire someone who isn’t vaccinated, and the law doesn’t prohibit it. Employers can also require that all new employees be vaccinated as a condition of employment.
  • Employers can also fire employees who refuse to get vaccinated because while it’s not a legally justified reason, many employers don’t have to justify it – they can either give a notice of termination (or severance pay), or the employer can make vaccination a condition of continued employment. Many employers would have to be careful about this though as it can still stray into the ‘wrongful termination’ suit arena, but it could happen.
  • Employees who refuse to get vaccinated on medical or religious grounds may be protected by the Human Rights Code. But if it’s discovered that you’re simply not getting vaccinated because you don’t want to, it’s more likely it will be harder to get work, depending on your field. And employers can request proof of vaccination, though again, they have to do it carefully because that information is covered under privacy laws.

With some sectors, it is far more likely that employers will require vaccinations – for example, the restaurant and health industry are more likely to require it for health and safety reasons. Customers for example may request that staff are vaccinated, or people may be working with medically vulnerable patients and the risk of them getting ill is very high. People who travel internationally may also have to be vaccinated for Covid, depending on where they are going, as another country may mandate that all visitors and travelers have up to date vaccinations done.

This also assumes that vaccinations don’t become mandated by government here in BC, though so far they seem quite unwilling to go that far. In the US on the other hand, and in other countries, some businesses are mandating it, so depending on what you’re doing, you may get yanked into that as well.

Juggling the Public and the Private

One of the big concerns that many businesses will have is juggling privacy concerns and vaccination fears with the fear for public safety and a loss of customers, particularly in very public sectors like health, hospitality, and education. Is it unreasonable to require staff to get vaccinated when they are working closely with public who may not be vaccinated? This is the sort of thing that can give any business owner a headache and no few lawyers enough work to keep them going for years.

On the other hand, those who work remotely, rarely see the public, or are in fields where they don’t come into contact may have far less justification for trying to cajole employees to get their Covid vaccine. It really depends a great deal on the industry.

Remember that businesses have a legal mandate to protect the safety and well-being of customers and staff. Reduced vaccination rates are tied to higher transmissibility of the virus which can then spread to customers. On the other hand, staff also have the right to feel comfortable and keep their medical information private, so it’s a sticky situation all around.

Most lawyers would recommend seeking legal advice when it comes to deciding what to do about vaccinations and staff. At this point, remember that employers are not allowed to mandate that existing staff get vaccinated (except in small sectors), but other forces may come into play that will force the hand one or the other and employers can refuse to hire someone based on their refusal to get vaccinated (or decline to extend a contract or work period).

At the moment, employers cannot force current employees to get the covid-19 vaccine, though they can strongly encourage it. However, if you are looking for work, depending on your industry, you may have to prove you are vaccinated. And if you are working internationally, many countries will require it as well (or proof of a valid reason not to have received it). In short, you aren’t legally obligated to get the covid-19 vaccine, but given that it’s a major part of getting things back to normal, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if you’re worried. And it may impact your employability in the future as well.

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