Majority of SMEs support vaccine mandates: survey

When the fourth wave of COVID-19 started to intensify, Toronto-based tech company Staffy decided it was time to implement a vaccination mandate.

The company, which provides an on-demand workforce platform for the healthcare and hospitality sector, made it mandatory for their 20 corporate staff to be vaccinated. They also made vaccinations mandatory for their roughly 10,000 external workers, who fill shift requests for healthcare, hospitality and general labour gigs.

“Now that vaccines are readily available, We thought it was time to make that declaration so that we could further continue to ensure the safety of our workers and clients and their patients,” said Peter Faist, founder and CEO of Staffy, who added the only exceptions to their vaccine policy are for religious or medical reasons.

“It wasn’t really a debate for us, we just think it’s best practice.”

Staffy is among a growing number small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) that are gaining the confidence to implement vaccine mandates, as more government and corporate workplaces move to make COVID-19 vaccination a work requirement.

A study from the auditing firm KPMG found that of 500 SMEs polled, 62 per cent were either implementing or planned to implement a vaccine mandate.

“SMEs are not necessarily waiting until there’s legislation and there may never be legislation for mandatory proof of vaccination,” said Norm Keith, a partner with KPMG Law LLP who advises businesses on vaccine mandates.

“They’re realizing that as a practical matter, they want to get back to business, they want employees in their retail or office space, but they also want to keep them safe.”

He noted the task of implementing a vaccine mandate is harder for an SME than for a larger corporation.

That’s because smaller businesses have fewer resources, and often don’t have the capacity to mandate vaccines in a way that creates alternate pathways for unvaccinated workers through provisions like remote working or regular COVID-19 testing.

Experts have said those types of exceptions for people who choose not to get the vaccine for personal reasons are key to avoiding lawsuits.

However, Keith said some of his clients, such as construction companies, have moved forward with strict vaccination policies that only allow exemptions for people with medical exemptions or human rights arguments.

He said these companies choose to mandate vaccinations because they also risk facing lawsuits if their work environment isn’t adequately working to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.

“There’s no legal right that an employee has to force an employer to employ them (if) they refuse to get vaccinated,” said Keith.

“An employee has a legal obligation not to put other employees at risk — that’s health and safety law. So having a mandatory proof of vaccine policy where workers are working in close proximity or a congregate work setting is a reasonable and defensible position for an employer to take legally.”

Keith said his clients that have implemented strict vaccination policies have not faced complaints from workers yet.

Meanwhile, the Toronto Region Board of Trade agreed that smaller companies have become more comfortable with making their own vaccination policies, especially as employers like the City of Toronto and Sun Life Financial publicly announced their mandates this week.

But Jan De Silva, president and CEO of the board, said standardized vaccine passports are more important than ever to ensure companies can enforce their mandates without issue.

“If you’ve got someone from out of province, how does an SME know what is valid proof of vaccination from all the other provinces and territories,” said De Silva.

“We really need to put the tools in place to help our businesses be able to operate and avoid another lockdown.”