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Provincial workers to return to office Dec. 1; vaccine mandate now in effect

Unvaccinated provincial employees who don't qualify for exemption will be placed on unpaid leave
All B.C. public service employees were required to provide proof of full vaccination on Monday. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

B.C. ministries will be tallying over the next few days how many government employees have complied with an order to show proof of vaccination.

All B.C. public service employees were required to provide proof of full vaccination on Monday. Those who did not comply and don’t have a valid medical exemption or other accommodation will be placed on an unpaid leave of absence for three months, according to the B.C. Public Service Agency.

The vaccine-proof deadline was intended to coincide with a Nov. 22 return-to-office order for government employees. But the return to the office was postponed to Dec. 1 to accommodate a provincial health order on Nov. 17 to limit non-essential travel due to gasoline restrictions in the aftermath of last week’s rainstorm, which damaged roads and restricted fuel delivery. It’s the latest in a series of return-to-office deadline extensions caused by an increase in COVID cases.

Despite the delay in the return to the office, the timeline for the COVID-19 proof of vaccination policy hasn’t changed, said the B.C. Public Service Agency.

Unvaccinated employees will not be able to use vacation or other banked leave time in lieu of leave without pay, the agency said. It said unvaccinated employees could be terminated after three months of being placed on leave without pay.

Ministries have been asked to ensure they have mitigation plans to address any potential shortfalls affecting operations.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the government hopes to have preliminary data on compliance by Friday or early next week. “But our focus right now is on initiating necessary follow-up actions, whether that’s addressing any requests for accommodation or moving those who remain unvaccinated onto unpaid leave.”

The vast majority of public servants are vaccinated, he said.

B.C. General Employees’ Union president Stephanie Smith agreed, noting in some health authorities, the vaccination rate for workers in the health-care sector is 100 per cent. She said she was told letters from the government to those who have not complied with the mandatory vaccination will go out this week.

“We know there are those who are either vaccine-hesitant or have chosen not to be vaccinated, but the vast, vast majority, I believe, are.”

A possibly more contentious issue for some is returning to working in offices from working remotely at home, said Smith.

Some workers are concerned about the potential for transmission in confined office spaces, the advent of flu season and the fact that COVID booster shots and immunizations for children have not ramped up yet, she said.

“We’ve been pushing the employer to make the health and safety of our membership a top priority,” said Smith. “We’re holding the employer to their responsibility for providing a safe environment for anyone who returns to the office.”

Concerned employees have been told to reach out to the union with their safety concerns “and we’ll support them in making sure that they’re in a safe environment.”

“We have heard from members — is this a good time to return the office?” said Smith. “We think the new year might be a better time to reassess [a return to work].”

A majority of the 31,000 public service employees work in public-facing jobs where they can’t work remotely, including in liquor stores, child-protection services, social work and as conservation officers.

The proof-of-vaccination policy applies to any employee working for the B.C. Public Service, whether they’re in a workplace or work remotely.

Smith said some office workers are “anxiously awaiting a return to office where there’s a sense of normalcy, and there’s a sense of that sort of interaction that you have within the worksite.”

Downtown restaurants and coffee shops have said they count on downtown offices being occupied, especially ­during the off-season, to buoy their ­businesses.