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Woodlands County will not require its staff to be vaccinated

Councillors overwhelmingly tell administration they are not in favour of a proposed mandatory employee vaccination policy
Gordon Frank March 18 copy
Woodlands County chief administrative officer Gordon Frank's (pictured here at a March 2020 meeting) proposed employee vaccination policy was not well received by councillors.

BARRHEAD-Woodlands County employees will not have to be vaccinated or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test as a condition of their employment.

That is what councillors overwhelmingly decided at their Nov. 9 meeting, quashing a recommendation by administration to bring in a policy that would make it mandatory for municipal staff to be double vaccinated or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test result every three days.

Employees would be responsible for testing costs.

If an employee failed to comply, the employee risked being placed on administrative leave without pay or benefits, reassignment or modification of their duties and in some cases termination.

Chief administrative officer Gordon Frank said the municipality received a letter from Alberta Community and Social Services Minister Jason Luan and Minister of Health Jason Copping in mid-October, urging municipalities and organizations who provide community and social services, to bring in employee vaccination policies," to help keep clients, staff and all Albertans safe as we combat the fourth wave of the virus.”

Taking the steps necessary to have these measures in place as soon as possible will help all of us look out for our most vulnerable populations and help reduce the pressure on our province's health care system," the letter stated.

Frank said administration has been considering drafting such a policy for some time.

"As emergency management, we are required to use our people as the frontline resource to ensure, if (an emergency or situation) does occur, we are available to respond," he said.

Frank added that the policy was drafted with the aid of their legal counsel, to ensure it was in full compliance with federal and provincial legislation.

Blue Ridge Coun. Bruce Prestidge was frustrated that the province was passing on the responsibility.

"Municipalities are not the ones who should be mandating vaccination policy," he said. "It is a provincial or federal matter. They are just pushing it down the road because they don't want to deal with it."

Coun. Dave Kusch asked what kind of compliance or pushback could the county expect.

"In the healthcare system, there have been nurses and other professionals walk-off putting stress everywhere else. If we do this, what will it look like for our organization?"

Frank said he wasn't sure but suspected about five per cent of staff would not be compliant if the policy was currently in place.

According to the province's vaccination status map, as of Nov. 9, in Northwest Woodlands County, which includes the Barrhead municipalities, 67.5 per cent of eligible residents are fully vaccinated. In Southwest Woodlands County, which includes Whitecourt, the number is slightly lower at 66.4 per cent.

Goose Lake/Freeman River Coun. Peter Kuelken agreed, saying he had an issue of "mandating something that (the province) wasn't willing to mandate themselves."

"We are being asked to do something that is not in our wheelhouse," he said.

Fort Assiniboine/Timeu Coun. Devin Williams was also upset that the province was attempting to have municipalities do the heavy lifting, but wondered if a policy was necessary, at least from the county's standpoint.

He asked Frank if the municipality was having difficulty maintaining adequate staffing or service levels due to COVID.

"Are the services not being provided by our staff? No. There are disruptions in communications and productivity, which is difficult to quantify," Frank replied. "I know from an administrative level things are more difficult to manage, but it is something we have been able to cope with for the last two years."

Whitecourt East Coun. Jeremy Wilhelm also questioned the need for such a policy, noting that while he is fully vaccinated and believes in the effectiveness of vaccines, he had difficulty mandating employees to do something they may not want to do and unnecessarily dividing the community further, for something that isn't in their mandate and might not be necessary.

He pointed the declining number of active cases in the county and the province.

Whitecourt Central Coun. Allan Deane said he was uncomfortable changing the condition of employment of employees.

Williams added he was concerned that the number of employees who were not fully vaccinated is much higher than five per cent.

"It could be 40, we don't know any of that. We are following (Alberta Health Services) rules ... I don't think we are being negligent in our duties to keep people safe," he said. "If it really needs to be mandated, the province needs to implement it."

Mayor John Burrows questioned what problem the policy was attempting to solve.

"Is it that we want to get everyone back in the workplace and get productivity up? If so, how much productivity are we losing? If we find that out, we can decide if spending money on this (policy) is worth it," he said. "Is there a way we can provide a safe working environment, prevent transmission, and provide services in a less evasive way?"

Frank referred to the request for decision (RFD) that states that after weighing the impacts COVID-19 with the operational requirements of the county, administration proposes the most efficient way to have the organization return together as a cohesive team would be through the implementation of a vaccination policy.

The RFD goes on to state that as an employer, the county has a responsibility to protect the health and safety of all employees and that COVID-19 vaccines have been determined that the best way to stop the spread of the virus.

"Are there other means? Absolutely, and we are doing them," Frank said. "What we believe (this policy) does is give those who are not able to do mandatory vaccination options. The Alberta Human Rights Commission says this is an acceptable practice during a pandemic. This is not long-term, this is to help us get through the pandemic and get back to our normal lives."

However, he said it was clear that council does not support a mandatory vaccination policy, he wouldn't be going forward with it.

Barry Kerton,


Barry Kerton

About the Author: Barry Kerton

Barry Kerton is the managing editor of the Barrhead Leader, joining the paper in 2014. He covers news, municipal politics and sports.
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