Two-tiered vaccine exemption system favours public servants

Two-tiered vaccine exemption system favours public servants

There are more possible reasons for exemptions offered to public servants compared to health care workers, according to a B.C. lawyer

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A lawyer for some of the unvaccinated health-care workers in B.C. who were fired from their jobs says the province has created an unfair, two-tiered system for those seeking vaccination exemptions for medical reasons.

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“There is much more consideration given to the rights of those who are unionized members of the public service than for others, like health-care workers,” said Charlene Le Beau.

Le Beau represents 11 people who have filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court, asking it to strike down the vaccine mandate requirement for employment because it violates their Charter rights and because Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry “has failed to provide a meaningful process for exemptions.”

Workers can apply for vaccination exemptions, but there are more possible reasons for exemptions offered to public servants compared to health-care workers, according to Beau, who said the system is unfair to her clients

“It was so demoralizing for them,” she said. “Some health-care workers applied but were refused an exemption. I know at least one petitioner who did not even apply because they knew it would not be approved. They felt boxed in and defeated before even trying because they saw how narrow the criteria was.”

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Exemption documents that must be filled out by a doctor or nurse practitioner show that health-care workers cannot apply for an exemption based on “hypersensitivity” to COVID-19 vaccines, even though that type of exemption is considered for public service workers.

Public servants who have suffered anaphylactic reactions to both types of COVID vaccines are allowed exemptions, but health-care workers are instead told to refer to a qualified allergist, who may administer the vaccine in smaller doses.

Also, public service workers who have received certain medications to fight COVID are automatically exempted from having to be vaccinated for at least 90 days, but there is no such option for health-care workers.

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“It seems like health-care workers have to be sicker than public servants before an exemption would be considered,” said Le Beau. “And public servants can seek an exemption due to a pre-existing medical condition. It’s much more expanded on the B.C. public service exemption application form, to allow a doctor to explain the condition.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix acknowledged to Postmedia that there are differences in what can be considered for a medical exemption because health-care workers and public servants fall under two different programs.

“The requirement for health-care workers in the public system to be vaccinated was implemented by a provincial health order,” Dix explained. “In contrast, other employers were encouraged to implement their own programs for vaccination and that’s what is happened in the public service. The public service has taken a slightly different approach.”

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Henry declined requests for an interview to explain why there is a more limited criteria that applies to health-care workers compared to public servants, but her vaccine mandate order for health-care workers states it is needed to protect vulnerable people in health-care settings.

However, Le Beau said that situation doesn’t apply to some of her clients who were fired.

“Some of our petitioners were administrative staff who did not work with vulnerable people. Some worked in offices and several of them worked from home even before COVID started,” she said. “But they have been fired from their jobs, which is devastating to them.”

Dix said he does not expect any further accommodations will be made for health-care workers, even those in administrative positions.

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“It is our view that in the public health-care system, during a COVID-19 pandemic, that all workers should be vaccinated,” he said.

The minister added that some health-care workers have applied for and were granted exemptions, but he could not provide specific numbers.

Close to 2,500 health-care workers were fired in November for failing to get fully vaccinated. The Ministry of Finance did not provide statistics on how many public servants were fired for refusing to become vaccinated. It said 363 workers are on leave without pay and it is “currently processing terminations on a case-by-case basis.”

The written response from the ministry said 365 public servants applied for vaccination exemptions, of which 22 were granted, 56 were denied, 82 were withdrawn, and 205 are under review.

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Meanwhile, documents from Northern and Interior health authorities show some contracted workers hired by the health authorities do not have to be vaccinated if they are “contractors who work remotely within B.C. and who do not regularly (defined as less than once a month) work inside or outside of a care location or facility.”

Le Beau said some fired health-care workers she represents have been contacted to apply for those jobs.

“The health authorities are getting around the rules by doing this,” she said.

Dix said he could not comment on the health authority documents because he has not seen them.

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