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Can my employer require me to get a COVID-19 vaccine? In most cases, no

HR firm says employers can, however, encourage workers to get vaccinated, and if they can’t or won’t, make accommodations

As COVID-19 vaccines roll out in Canada, questions surrounding vaccines and the workplace are starting to emerge.

Some U.S. companies — U.S. Airlines, for example — say they want to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for employees, although so far they haven’t made the shot a requirement, and are instead offering incentives for workers to get vaccinated.

Here in Canada, in most cases, employers will not be able to make vaccination a necessary requirement of employment, as this could amount to a human rights violation.

That’s according to Peninsula Canada, a human resources consulting firm operating out of Toronto.

Employers would be wise to avoid pressuring their staff into getting a vaccine because they may not be able to for medical reasons, religious beliefs or due to a disability, the company said.

Kiljon Shukullari, a team lead with Peninsula Canada, said there might be certain scenarios “where there might be a contract in place” for high-risk positions where a COVID-19 vaccine may be required.

“But it has to be really, really an exceptional case, one that is pretty much life or death,” he said.

“Usually we use that standard. Other than that, it’s going to be very tough to force individuals to get the vaccines.”

Employers can, however, provide staff information about vaccination.

“So educating your employees is the No. 1 thing,” said Shukullari, adding government has a lot of great resources employers can share.

“Everything starts with that. Even in basic terms, being educated, being knowledgeable about a topic, it makes it a lot more comfortable, more easily understandable and acceptable.”

This is especially important because of vaccine hesitancy, or reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated.

“We have a lot of conversations even now with employers who are saying we’re hearing conversations in our lunch rooms … about people that are fully against the vaccine,” he said.

“That is your opportunity as an employer, once you start hearing those things, to be proactive and start providing that education element to it.”

If an employee does not want to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, or can’t receive one, employers might have to provide accommodations up to the point of undue hardship.

For example, if a remote worker decides not to get the vaccine, their employer might be able to accommodate them by letting them continue working from home.

However, if returning to the office is necessary for the operations of the business or the employee’s job duties do not allow them to work from home, it may be too difficult for the employer to accommodate them in this manner. 

In such a case, the employer might have to make other accommodations.

In the workplace, an unvaccinated employee could be accommodated by being provided a separate work area that allows them to properly maintain social distance, said information provided by Peninsula.

Employers can also require unvaccinated workers to continue following COVID-19 health and safety measures such as wearing face masks or coverings in order to protect others in the workplace.

Shukullari said dealing with these issues will be easier for some businesses than others — i.e. those where it is easy for employees to continue to work from home.

“The ones that will have to have employees come back, we see a lot of frictions that are going to happen,” he said.