Vax policy for new City of Hamilton employees survives by 1 vote


Published February 1, 2023 at 9:46 pm

The voting arithmetic did not back up Coun. Esther Pauls’s science, and so the City of Hamilton’s “outdated” vaccine policy will live for at least another week.

On the eve of Groundhog Day, the only active Hamilton councillor who voted last year against mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for municipal employees pushed for the policy that now applies solely to new hirings, to be lifted in all but three areas (paramedics, long-term care lodges and a city-run daycare). The motion by the Ward 7 rep was defeated 8-7 following debate at the general issues committee (GIC) meeting today (Feb. 1). A follow-up vote, where the outcome could be reversed, will take place at the Feb. 8 council meeting.

The city’s universal policy was paused last September. New hires need only show proof of two doses rather than regular vaccination as new variants of COVID-19 emerge.

The city’s human resources executive director, Lora Fontana, provided an info report that said only five offers of employment have been withdrawn since 2021 due to insufficient vaccination. In that time, the city added 2,100 newcomers to its workforce and re-hired 800 others — or a take-up rate of around 99.83 per cent.

“To maintain a different outdated standard for new employees, it’s not right,” Pauls said during her presentation. “We also have staff shortages in various areas among the City of Hamilton. Keeping this outdated policy creates unnecessary barriers of hiring the best people for the job. I appreciate that the report from executive director Fontana refers that only five offers of employment have been rescinded. This doesn’t capture the hundreds of would-be applicants who are eliminated from the pool.

“I appreciate it may not be detrimental to the city today, but the candidate pool may continue to shrink as other cities move on and do better.”

Pauls later said it was important to keep the policy separate from public health advice — which recommends getting boosters and masking in public spaces. In doing so, she claimed she could not transmit COVID-19 to someone else.

The Ontario government recommends continuing to get vaccinated. The Mayo Clinic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other sciencey-type places all advise the public that vaccinated people with “breakthrough infections” are merely less likely than an unvaccinated person to spread COVID-19 to others, rather than being wholly safe from doing so.

“Let’s not confuse a city policy with the public health, and that’s what we’re doing,” she said. “That’s what we’re doing. You might have your opinion on the vaccine, that’s great, but so do other people. Let me tell you a truth — I’ve only been vaccinated twice. You know why? Because I’m healthy. I don’t think I could spread COVID-19 to the councillors beside me. And that’s what we’re talking about.

“… We’re talking about if I’m not vaccinated, if I don’t get my booster shot, if I don’t keep doing it, I might pass it along,” Pauls added. “And that’s false.”

Mayor Andrea Horwath, who suggested she may bring a future motion about a policy update, and Couns. Maureen Wilson (1), Cameron Kroetsch (2), Nrinder Nann (3), John-Paul Danko (8), Craig Cassar (12), Alex Wilson (13), and Ted McMeekin (15) combined to vote the motion down.

“COVID is ongoing,” the mayor said. “We’ve watched how it has mutated over the years. We don’t know what comes next … The virus is still amongst us and we are still grappling with that. I think sending a message that this is now all said and done is really problematic for me.”

Pauls was supported by Couns. Tammy Hwang (4), Matt Francis (5), Tom Jackson (6), Jeff Beattie (11), Mark Tadeson (12) and Mike Spadafora (14; he was also the seconder). Ward 9 Coun. Brad Clark was absent from the meeting.

Hamilton kept mandatory vaccination for city employees in place longer than most similar Ontario cities. The healthcare industry is a major local employer, and there is a wide gap in health outcomes between the city’s poorest and most affluent neighbourhoods.

Ontario commenced rolling back provincial COVID-19 health protections last March, before Premier Doug Ford and his PC Party of Ontario began their re-election campaign. The federal government, which tends to protections among its own employees and in mass transportation (planes and trains), also began scaling it back.

Can get on a plane, but can’t pick up garbage?

That has created contradictions in everyday life.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Francis said. “I can fly anywhere in Canada without a vaccine, but god forbid I come down here and pick up garbage as a city employee? The science does not support the current (City of Hamilton) policy, so I’m supporting the messaging and the science and voting to lift it.”

Councillors on either side of the vote said the policy is stale.

“This is a collective situation and it’s full of contradictions across levels of government, within Canada and around the world,” Alex Wilson said. “We need to have a whole toolbox-wide conversation, not getting rid of one tool.

“Regardless of how we vote, we need to evolve this tool,” they added “Do we have that information in front of us? That remains unanswered. I look forward to when we do, and I look forward to having this conversation because it is going to keep coming up.”

Beattie used the example of an employee with a pre-pandemic start date who did not get two doses — and is back at work — and a recent one who had just the two.

“I’m a believer in the science, and I will continue to follow that science,” he said. “What is the difference between those two people working side-by-side, and what is the benefit over the next 10, 20, 25 years?

“I’m struggling to come up with that. We know it’s still evolving. There’s a reason why this was done initially. I’m not so sure it still holds, and I think now is as good a time as any to take a second look at it.”

‘ Disingenuous,’ ‘incongruent’

Maureen Wilson added it was “incongruent” that vaccines would still be mandatory for paramedics, long-term care home workers, and employees at the Red Hill Child Care Centre, but not others.

“If you want it lifted, lean all the way in,” she said.

Danko agreed with Pauls that the policy is outdated. Much like Beattie and Alex Wilson, he said that underscored a need to revisit the policy.

“I do see the point that with it only being two vaccines (required), it is outdated,” Danko said. “However, we should be updating the policy. If that’s truly your argument, that this policy is no longer effective, then let’s make it boosters. But that’s not what is on the table before us. We’ve gone straight to ‘eliminate the policy’ and that is disingenuous.”

About 500 municipal employees were placed on leave last year due to being unvaccinated or not disclosing their status. The vote to create the policy was 12-2 in favour, with only Pauls and former Ward 14 councillor Terry Whitehead opposing it.

Pauls contended at that time the directive should have come from the Ford government.

Wednesday, Wilson noted the province’s stance on regional approaches in COVID-19 protections have changed over the last three years. She characterized any moves in Hamilton as a way of reclaiming the autonomy Ford offered at the start of the pandemic in 2020.

A vote to suspend the policy failed in a 6-6 vote in May, which is why it lasted through the summer.

Presently, COVID-19 activity in Hamilton is considered to be “moderate and decreasing.”

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