Unvaxxed city workers in Hamilton get a 3-month reprieve, but not without drama


Published May 25, 2022 at 7:16 pm

At the end of the day, the hundreds of City of Hamilton employees who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 got their way.

The first post-COVID hybrid city council meeting was marked by a lack of decorum, although the issue of the day seemed to involve a compromise. Ultimately, councillors voted 11-3 in favour of a motion by Ward 7 Coun. Esther Pauls to essentially pause their vaccination verification policy for city employees until the end of September. That would presumably give city staff more time to estimate how much money the terminiations would cost taxpayers, while also granting time for any vaccine-hesitant workers to get their jabs.

“Basically, I’m saying, let’s get three more months to try to get the costs,” Pauls said. “What people want from the city is transparency. People want to know what they pay for their services. This is the most important thing we do for the people of Hamilton. Cost is number one.”

The previous deadline of May 31 had been bearing down on the 300-some employees who are unvaxxed. The debate and vote came with a large contingent of sign-bearing city employees who were under threat of losing their jobs sitting in the gallery at City Hall. Proceedings were frequently interrupted with jeers, which led to Ward 1 Coun. Maureen Wilson, the meeting chair, to repeatedly call for order and to threaten to have the gallery cleared. Wilson and Ward 14 Coun. Terry Whitehead clashed frequently over points of order and challenges to the chair.

“Thank you Madam Chair and please submit your chit for danger and overtime pay,” Ward 6 Coun. Tom Jackson said to Wilson at the end of a meeting that stretched to nine hours due to other council business and in-camera sessions.

Pauls, Whitehead, Jackson and fellow councillors Brad Clark (Ward 9), Lloyd Ferguson (12), Brenda Johnson (11), Sam Merulla (Ward 4), Judi Partridge (15), Maria Pearson (10), Russ Powers (5), Arlene VanderBeek (13) voted in favour of the pause.

Wilson, Ward 3 Coun. Nrinder Nann and Ward 8 Coun. John-Paul Danko voted against pausing the policy. Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who previously voted for retaining the policy, was absent. Ward 2 Coun. Jason Farr is also away from council while he runs in the Ontario election.

Mayor Eisenberger has also wondered about the costs from allowing unvaccinated employees to stay on the job. New findings from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States also shows 1 in 5 adults who get COVID-19 experience a new condition a month or more later.

The policy debate has dragged out for weeks in Hamilton, even as COVID-19 activity has stabilized. Vaccination has become an emotional issue over the two-year pandemic. A large percentage of the population, at least based on uptake statistics, may treat getting their jabs in the realm of a social good, while others view it is a personal medical decision. COVID-19 is also an airborne virus and each additional dose or booster offers additional layers of protections against contracting it and suffering the severer health outcomes, including COVID-19.

It is unclear how a court battle would play out.

While post-secondary education and employment are not the same, McMaster University in Hamilton successfully defended its vaccation policy in court recently. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms filed for a judicial review on behalf of four students who were unenrolled from McMaster for the winter term after refusing to get vaccination. The Ontario Divisional Court rejected their claim.

City council in Hamilton was poised to lift the policy four weeks ago. It stayed in place after a 6-6 tie vote in April, which prompted several employee unions to take up the cause of fighting the policy. One of the four councillors who was away, VanderBeek, was ill with COVID-19 at that time.

The vaccine verification policy was revisited throughout late 2021 and early this year. The last update came on Jan. 12, when the Omicron variant was bearing down on the city. Pauls and Whitehead were the lone two councillors to vote against it at that time.

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