The re-elected federal Liberal government is raising the possibility that workers let go for failing to adhere to an employer’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate could find themselves ineligible for employment insurance.
In an interview for this week’s edition of The West Block, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said dismissal for failure to adhere to a workplace policy — in this case, vaccination — would likely leave people without EI coverage.
“Because of course a fundamental principle of the EI program is that claimants have to lose their employment through no fault of their own, and this would be seen typically as a choice,” she said.
“Right now we’re still in the middle of this pandemic and we need people to be vaccinated, we need workers to be vaccinated, of course if they can be.”
The policy could have a significant impact in B.C., which has mandated all health-care workers and government employees be immunized against COVID-19.
As of this week, roughly 5,500 health-care workers had yet to be vaccinated, along with 1,800 staff in long-term care and 300 in assisted-living facilities.
There are about 31,000 workers in the B.C. public service, and while their union couldn’t provide a firm number on who had yet to be vaccinated, if it followed provincial averages it would amount to about 1,500 people.
Dan Balkaran, an employment lawyer with Vancouver-based Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, said the federal government was leaving people with few options.
“As far as the Employment Ministry is concerned, that’s what they’re doing and that’s what’s going to happen. The vast majority of people are going to be disentitled to EI,” he said.
“Which means the primary emergency safety net that terminated employees draw on to put food on their table, pay their mortgages, that sort of thing while they look for a new job. That’s going to be eliminated for those people so I think it’s very serious.”
The BC General Employees Union (BCGEU), which represents B.C. public service workers, recently held a webinar for staff including an employment lawyer and B.C. Centre for Disease Control doctor to advice workers of their rights and options, and to try to give members clear information about the vaccines.
Opting not to get vaccinated could be a life-altering decision, she said, and while some members were keen to fight the mandate or the EI policy, it could leave them in a long fight with no guarantee of winning.
“Those who are still hesitant or those who haven’t quite made up their minds yet, they need the facts — they need to know the potential outcomes of any decisions they are making,” union president Stephanie Smith said.
“I am so sick and tired of pseudoscience and pseudo-law negatively impacting people, whether it’s job loss, whether it’s illness, and in the worst of all cases, death.”
Dan Kelly, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the federal policy appeared to “punish people who are unvaccinated,” and questioned whether it would hold up in court.
“They’ve paid into it, they now are no longer working — it surprises me,” he said.
“I suspect that the chances of somebody actually at the end of the day losing their EI coverage or losing their pay as a result of a vaccine mandate, I suspect that’s not going to last very long. I suspect courts are going to reject those kinds of ideas pretty fast.”
But while workers who lose their jobs will have the right to challenge an EI disentitlement, and could also file legal challenges, in the short term they would be left without income, Balkaran warned.
“The purpose of EI is emergency money to help you survive right now, and if it takes you six months to get that money it’s really kind of counter-productive,” he said.
Balkaran said for many of his clients, vaccine mandates are an emotional issue, but he said anyone potentially affected by the mandates and EI policy should take a step back and try and look at their options dispassionately.
“You need to evaluate what’s important to you. If you’re 53 years old with no university education making $85,000 per year and you need to get to retirement, you can’t lose that job,” he said.
“So is there an amicable solution you can come to with the employer such as working remotely? And if not you need to take a hard look at getting the vaccine, because you’re looking potentially at economic ruin.”
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