Nine months after imposing them, all of Canada’s Big Five banks have suspended or removed mandatory vaccine requirements for staff, amid the broader lifting of COVID-19 restrictions across the country.
Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Nova Scotia, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Bank of Montreal and Toronto-Dominion Bank all lifted their compulsory vaccine policies for employees over the past six weeks, allowing unvaccinated people to work in offices and branches without being subject to additional safety measures such as rapid testing.
All of the five largest banks took a firm stand on vaccines last August, requiring staff to attest that they were fully vaccinated by a certain date in order to enter any bank premises. Some, such as CIBC and BMO, made it compulsory for all employees, even those who worked from home, to be vaccinated.
But public-health restrictions, such as gathering limits, masking and vaccine mandates across provinces, have since eased, and banks appear to be changing their policies accordingly.
“It was becoming increasingly more challenging to have a higher standard of what was required from employees in the workplace, than what was in broader society,” said Helena Gottschling, RBC’s chief human resources officer, in reference to the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.
RBC suspended its vaccine requirement on May 23 for American and Canadian staff after consulting with public-health officials, Ms. Gottschling said.
“We have very high vaccination rates at the bank. Having a mandate was the responsible thing to do at the time, and we really saw our vaccination numbers increase after imposing it,” she added. RBC had allowed unvaccinated employees to work on its premises, as long as they showed proof of a negative COVID-19 rapid test and were masked. Those requirements have since been suspended.
In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Scotiabank said it has paused its vaccination policy, and unvaccinated employees are no longer required to follow masking and rapid testing procedures to enter offices. The bank said 94 per cent of its employees in Canada are fully vaccinated as of this week.
CIBC also told The Globe it has dropped its vaccine requirement after taking into consideration “government and public health direction.” BMO, too, told The Globe it currently does not have a mandatory vaccination policy. TD confirmed that it had lifted all of its vaccine mandates in May.
Vaccine mandates have been one of the most controversial aspects of the pandemic, pitting individual liberties against the communal protection of people more broadly. Across the country, hundreds of health care workers, government employees and private-sector workers were fired or put on unpaid leave for not getting vaccinated, spawning numerous legal challenges on the issue, some of which are still working their way through the court system, lawyers say.
But the frenzy surrounding compulsory vaccinations appears to be subsiding in tandem with the decline of hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19.
“I understand why some employers would want to pause or remove vaccine mandates right now. These policies were controversial to begin with, and it’s a nice time to end them,” said Kelly O’Ferrall, a partner in labour and employment law at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. Ms. O’Ferrall said she’s seen those employers go one of three routes over the past few months: pause them, remove them altogether or stop enforcing them. She added, however, that many employers had still not lifted vaccine mandates.
So what will happen to unvaccinated employees who were terminated or put on unpaid leave by employers who have since backtracked on their vaccine mandates?
“It depends if you’re a provincially or federally regulated employee,” said Andrew Monkhouse, partner at the Toronto-based labour and employment firm Monkhouse Law. “Federally regulated employees, like bank employees for example, could potentially ask for reinstatement under the unjust dismissal clause of the Canada Labour Code. But the vast majority of cases like this would be settled with a lump sum payment to the worker.”
Kathleen Chevalier, a partner in employment law at the Bay Street firm Stikeman Elliott LLP, said it would be unlikely that an unvaccinated employee would have a strong case against an employer that changed its vaccine policy.
“These policies were put in place when COVID was present enough to constitute a real health and safety risk. The employer’s position would be that the decision was justifiable at the time it was made and for the duration it was covered,” Ms. Chevalier said.
PwC Canada has also removed all of its COVID-19-related protocol including masking indoors for employees returning to the office. The accounting firm made these changes in April, after the majority of provincial public-health authorities had dropped vaccine mandates. Staff who are uncomfortable with unmasked colleagues have the option of sitting on a floor meant only for masked employees.
Some employers, however, continue to stick to their vaccine mandates. In statements to The Globe, Canada Life and Sun Life said they still require everyone who enters their offices to be vaccinated. Canada Life said it will re-evaluate that policy on July 1.
Ms. Chevalier says there is a risk in removing a vaccine mandate and then reintroducing it later if circumstances warrant: If new unvaccinated workers have been hired, it would be challenging to figure out how to deal with them.
“I have to say that on balance, there are few employers that have decided to get rid of vaccine policies altogether. There is a reluctance to say mission accomplished just yet,” she said.
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