To serve and protect? A patchwork of penalties means some Toronto public servants face strict rules about vaccination -- and some face none at all
Oct. 13, 2021
David Rider, Jennifer Pagliaro, Ben Spurr and Wendy Gillis
As the deadline looms for all city of Toronto employees to get fully protected from COVID-19, a patchwork of penalties means the public won’t know whether key front-line workers are vaccinated or not.
While Torontonians might feel reassured by the city’s tough stand -- tens of thousands of employees must get vaccinated or face suspension and then termination -- a Toronto police officer leaning into somebody’s vehicle faces no such ultimatum.
Unvaccinated drivers of TTC vehicles, meanwhile, face only possible penalties. The fate of those immunization holdouts is unclear due to fears of staff shortages and resulting transit service disruptions.
A Star survey of local government vaccine mandates reveals a hodgepodge of rules. Some civil servants must get vaccinated. Others can instead opt for regular testing. Still others face only encouragement to protect themselves and the public.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a Toronto infectious diseases expert and member of Ontario’s vaccine task force, said the variation in rules shouldn’t diminish the mandates’ effectiveness.
“There’s no silver bullet to ending the pandemic,” he said. “But there is decent data from different parts of the world that mandates help boost vaccination rates and are important to creating safer indoor spaces.
“There are differing viewpoints among the scientific and public health professionals on the specifics,” he said.
“Personally, I am OK with people being required to have a negative rapid (COVID-19) test before entering the (workplace) environment but there are exceptions. In health care, for example, you should be vaccinated, given the risk.”
While union objections to mandates are a factor in the differing responses, vaccination requirements here are not as politicized or controversial as in parts of the United States.
Omar Khan, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Institute of Biomedical Engineering, said that’s because most Ontarians accept the scientific need to drive vaccination rates as high as possible to hasten an end to the lingering pandemic being driven by COVID-19’s Delta variant.
Employers are required by law to provide a safe workplace and, for many government offices, that includes for members of the public, who want to ride a bus or pay a water bill and not be exposed to a potentially fatal disease.
“Government provides services and one of those services should not be spreading a virus,” Khan said.
Here are vaccine rules faced by different groups of public employees:
Mayor John Tory and city manager Chris Murray, who oversees more than 35,000 public servants, announced a strict vaccine mandate in August, setting the stage for other municipalities and arm’s-length agencies.
The city’s mandate applies to active employees working directly for the city and does not cover the TTC or Toronto police.
The policy -- which is not covered by federal or provincial legislation -- required all employees to disclose their vaccine status. Those who do not provide proof of two doses by the week of Nov. 1 face mandatory training and six weeks’ suspension without pay. If not vaccinated by Dec. 13, employees will be terminated.
Unlike other mandates, the city is not allowing mandatory testing to enter the workplace as an alternative, nor is it making accommodations -- like working from home -- for workers refusing vaccine. Employees with legitimate human rights claims or medical reasons will be exempt.
So far, the city has seen the vast majority of public servants disclose their status -- 95 per cent of the active workforce. As of Friday, the city said 26,138 employees were fully vaccinated -- 89 per cent of those who disclosed, ahead of the provincial average and nearing the 90 per cent goal set by Ontario. Another five per cent were partially vaccinated and two per cent chose not to disclose their status.
City staff roles range from garbage collectors to city planners. It’s not yet clear if vaccine-related suspensions or dismissals will have any impact on city services.
“While the number of staff not fully vaccinated is low, divisions have already begun to consider plans to mitigate any service or staffing impacts resulting from this policy enforcement,” a city news release said.
Whether or not the officer who pulls you over is vaccinated against COVID-19 largely depends on where they work.
In recent weeks, individual police services have developed their own vaccine policies, after calls by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police to the province to establish guidelines went unanswered. Currently, rules range from no vaccine requirement to officers facing absence without pay or termination for not getting the jab.
Toronto police, the largest municipal service in Canada, was among the first to announce it would introduce a vaccine requirement for its 7,500 employees, a move swiftly opposed by the Toronto Police Association.
Employees were first asked to share their vaccination status, resulting in 90 per cent of employees responding (93.5 per cent are fully vaccinated). However, due to an arrangement with the Toronto police union, officers who refuse to reveal their status won’t face any consequences.
There are also currently no plans to reassign any employees who aren’t vaccinated: the only limits placed on unvaccinated officers are that they can’t do paid duty work or use the police gym facilities. There are also no plans to make unvaccinated Toronto police employees do a rapid COVID-19 test before shifts.
That differs from other police services, including the Ontario Provincial Police, which said last week that any officer not vaccinated by Nov. 1 will have to undergo testing every 48 hours before a shift.
In Hamilton, officers who have not disclosed their vaccination status must undergo rapid testing before reporting to work each week. The Waterloo Regional Police Service has a similar policy, which also states that employees who don’t comply with the service’s vaccine policy “will be placed on a leave of absence without pay until compliance is achieved.”
Last month, the London Police Service announced among the strictest policies in the province: Employees who fail to provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 15 and who are not subject to an approved accommodation may be reassigned, removed from active duties, placed on an unpaid leave of absence -- or even be terminated.
As of last week, police services in Durham and York regions had no vaccination policy in place for officers. Services in Ottawa, Thunder Bay, and Halton and Peel regions said they are developing policies.
The TTC announced its own vaccine mandate shortly after the mayor said municipal employees would need to get their shots.
Under the policy, all 16,000 TTC employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 30, with limited exceptions on human rights grounds. But unlike the city, the transit agency has yet to determine how it will discipline employees who don’t comply.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, the largest TTC employees’ union, has filed a grievance against the policy.
With workers slow to confirm their status, the TTC repeatedly pushed back the deadline for disclosure. As of Tuesday, six days after the most recent target date, about 85 per cent of its 16,000 employees had shared their status. Of those, 90 per cent were fully vaccinated.
However, at about 82 per cent, the disclosure rate is lower among the 8,000 members of the TTC’s operations division, which includes bus, streetcar and subway drivers.
If the agency were to follow the city of Toronto’s example and suspend employees who aren’t vaccinated by Oct. 30, it could cause staff shortages that would require service cuts. This past weekend the agency began reaching out to retired operators to help fill the gap.
“We are taking all possible steps and planning for several scenarios to ensure we are able to deliver our planned/scheduled service,” said TTC spokesperson Stuart Green.
Local 113 is pushing the TTC to emulate Hamilton, which is allowing its transit employees who don’t get their shots to continue working if they submit to frequent COVID-19 tests.
Metrolinx, which operates GO Transit, is taking a harder line and has said employees who aren’t fully vaccinated by Nov. 1 will be suspended without pay, and could ultimately face termination.
About 95 per cent of the agency’s more than 4,600 employees have attested to their vaccination status, and of those about 97 per cent are either fully vaccinated or say they intend to be by the deadline.