When one of Lori Johb’s employees needed time off work to drive an elderly parent to a COVID-19 vaccination appointment, Johb didn’t hesitate. As the president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labor in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, her entire professional focus is on workers. “I’m the boss, so I was able to grant him paid time for that, because I think it’s very, very important,” Johb said.
Soon after, she received a call from the Minister of Labor in Saskatchewan. “[The Minister of Labor] said that they were amending the Election Act to say that employers were required to give workers [paid] time off, up to three hours at a minimum, but more if needed for vaccinations.”
More Provinces Add Paid Leave
While Canadian leave policies for vaccination vary from province to province, Saskatchewan is the first province to offer paid leave for employees to get their vaccination shots for COVID-19. Alberta and British Columbia also have elected to offer paid leave for vaccination.
“The way the Saskatchewan [leave] works is [employees] are entitled to get three consecutive hours off work during their work hours to go get their COVID vaccination,” said Lisa Goodfellow, an attorney with Miller Thomson in Toronto. If there are unusual circumstances where an employee needs more than three hours off, it’s in the employer’s discretion to approve a longer break.
The leave doesn’t require employers to pay employees, but rather guarantees that employees will not lose pay during the time they take off for vaccination. So if an employee misses only one hour of work, the paid time off will cover that one hour.
Saskatchewan’s paid-leave policy aims to encourage workers to get their vaccinations. “They want to provide as much incentive as possible to employees to get vaccinated,” Goodfellow said. “And for some people, if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, having to take some time off to do it would be a disincentive.”
British Columbia Shifts to Paid Leave
In British Columbia, the government initially approved an unpaid leave that differed in a few ways from Saskatchewan’s policy. “It’s an open-ended leave. … It doesn’t set a fixed number of hours; it’s whatever the employee reasonably needs to get the vaccination,” said Michael Howcroft, an attorney with Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP in Vancouver, British Columbia. “And it doesn’t limit the number of times the person can take it. So if, for example, I needed to take it for myself, but I also needed to, say, take an elderly grandmother or something like that, it would apply in all those circumstances.”
Though the original amendment specified an unpaid leave, on April 19 an amendment was proposed to allow for three hours of paid leave in British Columbia. Approval of the amendment, which is expected, will apply retroactively to April 19.
Encouraging Vaccination Through Paid Leave
Mandatory vaccination is a complicated and debated issue, so paid-leave policies allow provinces to encourage vaccination without compelling it. For the most part, employers support these policies.
“When I’m talking to my clients, they’re not concerned about giving people time off to get a vaccine,” Howcroft said. “What they’re concerned about is making sure that they get their employees vaccinated so that the chance of an outbreak occurring at their workplace is reduced, and that they ensure that their employees are safe, and that they ensure that their business can continue.”
By amending the Election Act in Saskatchewan, legislators were able to quickly allow for paid leave in a familiar framework. “Because our provincial government decided to make an amendment to the Election Act, it was very doable; it was something that could happen immediately,” Johb pointed out. In Canada, it is usual to have paid leave to vote, so paid leave for vaccination was a logical next step.
With new virus variants racing against Canada’s vaccine rollout, it’s important now to incentivize as many workers as possible to get their vaccination shots quickly. “Everything I’m hearing from my clients is, ‘We want to make sure we get our employees vaccinated; what can we do to help get our employees vaccinated? Is there anything that we can do to get this done faster?’ ” Howcroft said.
It’s beneficial to the entire economic ecosystem of Canada to get the pandemic under control, through vaccination and policies that encourage it. “They want to have their economy back to normal as much as possible,” Goodfellow said, “and having people vaccinated is the best way to do that.”
Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul.