theatre sign reads "1. vaccinate. 2. social distance. 3. wear a mask."

Ontario COVID-19 restrictions lifted, but is this the end of workplace vaccine mandates?

Ontario recently reversed or changed a number of COVID-19-related restrictions. This included increasing or lifting capacity limits effective 17 February 2022. More recently, it announced a plan to lift all indoor capacity limits and vaccine mandate rules effective 1 March 2022. In addition, the Ontario government advised that it is considering lifting mandatory mask rules.

Laws are changing rapidly in response to COVID-19. Please be sure to get the most current available information from a reliable source . Seek legal advice if you are unsure of your rights.

Does this mean mask rules and vaccine mandates will be illegal in Ontario?

No. So far, these changes to COVID-19 restrictions don’t make prior COVID-19 precautions illegal. In other words, specific workplaces can still have vaccine mandates for workers or the public.

The Ontario government has expressly stated that public health units can tailor local rules to local health indicators. In other words, these changes affect province-wide rules but your local health authority can still make its own rules. Hamilton-based workers and unions should check out the Hamilton Public Health website to remain apprised of local rules.

In addition, the government has expressly stated that businesses will be able to maintain vaccine mandate policies voluntarily.

What does my employer have to do to keep me safe as COVID-19 restrictions change?

These changes mean that explicit, province- or industry-wide rules are changing. This includes rules designed to protect workers or that have had the effect of protecting workers, like vaccine mandates.

For example, the province is lifting its long-standing COVID-19 rule that employees must work from home unless in-person work is necessary. This doesn’t mean that every employer can insist that every employee return to in-person work on 1 March. Likewise, lifting capacity limits or even mask or vaccine mandate laws doesn’t mean that employers can simply stop requiring masks or backtrack on vaccine mandates for employees.

First, employers have had a duty to take all reasonable precautions to keep workers safe since long before the pandemic. However, before the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers were expected to exercise reasonable judgement or refer to industry norms. If they were large enough, they had to have a joint health and safety committee where issues of worker safety could be addressed. Sometimes, the Ministry of Labour would inspect a workplace and make specific orders about what precautions should be taken to keep workers safe. Lifting specific requirements designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Ontario workplaces means that employers will get to return to this earlier approach on some issues. We assume that many workplaces will continue to require the same precautions that were previously mandatory province-wide. Despite vocal opposition to vaccine mandates, most of us are now vaccinated and used to wearing masks.

Second, employers had to reasonably accommodate workers with disabilities or family status-related needs to the point of undue hardship before the pandemic. As we explained in some of our blog posts in 2020, sometimes accommodation means permitting an employee to work from home. In fact, accommodation in the form of working from home was previously hard to obtain for Ontario workers. But, the pandemic has shown how many workers can do their jobs effectively while working remotely. We expect that many workplaces will continue to agree to work from home arrangements for at least some employees. Other employers will be required to do so by the Human Rights Tribunal.

Finally, the government has not lifted the obligation on Ontario workplaces to have a COVID-19 safety plan in place. This means that your employer should have a written plan that addresses what steps it is taking to keep you safe on the job. While these changes to COVID-19 restrictions may be a good opportunity to revisit your workplace rules and assess whether they are the best fit for your specific health and safety concerns, they certainly don’t mean a return to “normal”. We expect that many employers will continue to require employee vaccination as well as proof of vaccination from clients or customers.

What if customers start refusing to comply with our workplace health and safety rules?

This is a real risk. We’re worried that many members of the public will interpret these changes as a ban on things like vaccine mandates. As with a lot of public safety measures over the last 2 years, we’re concerned that frontline workers will bear the brunt of difficult customers’ anger when a store, restaurant or other business maintains an appropriate level of precautions for their employees’ safety. As always, your employer needs to have an occupational health and safety policy that addresses workplace violence and harassment. This includes violence and harassment by members of the public who you deal with at work. It’s no less mandatory than a COVID-19 safety policy, and after 2 years of unacceptable attacks on workers, it’s hard to see workplace violence and COVID-19 measures as separate issues.

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