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Labour + Industry

Vaccine Mandate Applies Only to Some Supportive Housing Workers

Some employees are concerned that the different requirements are putting residents at risk.

Jen St. Denis 25 Oct 2021 |

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

Unions that represent workers in shelters and supportive housing say vaccine mandates are being applied in a confusing and contradictory way and employees are concerned they and residents are at risk as COVID-19 cases remain high during B.C.’s fourth wave.

On Sept. 13, the B.C. government announced that by Oct. 26 health-care workers in public health facilities that are accessible to patients will have to have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to continue being employed.

That policy applies to supportive housing sites that are funded by health authorities, but it does not apply to shelters and supportive housing that are funded by BC Housing or another source.

That means employees doing the same work will have different levels of protection while working, said Stephanie Smith, president of the BC General Employees’ Union, and Andrew Ledger, president of CUPE Local 1004.

“Some of the concerns are around protection of residents,” said Ledger. “And why an order that has come down only applies to a very limited scope of supportive housing projects.”

Ledger noted that PHS operates 29 supportive housing sites. Four receive funding from Vancouver Coastal Health and are covered by the vaccination policy.

Smith said some workers who have gotten COVID-19 have become very sick and have had to be hospitalized. There’s confusion around whether the policy in place is based on the work being performed or simply determined by which agency is providing the funding for the housing.

Not all workers agree that there should be a vaccine mandate, Smith said. But “we have members who want to know that everybody in their worksite has done what they need to do to keep everybody safe.”

The vaccination mandate does not apply to unionized peer workers, according to an email sent by PHS to employees. Peer workers are people with lived experience of drug use or poverty who often have barriers to conventional employment.

BCGEU represents employees of RainCity and Atira Property Management Inc., while CUPE Local 1004 represents workers at PHS Community Services. Those organizations operate dozens of supportive housing buildings and homeless shelters in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and across the Metro Vancouver region. RainCity and PHS also operate several overdose prevention sites.

Many people who live in supportive housing or shelters have pre-existing illnesses, and people from the Downtown Eastside are more likely to end up needing care in hospital if they get COVID-19. A small number of Downtown Eastside residents have died after becoming ill with COVID-19.

Since mid-August, the local health area that includes the Downtown Eastside, Strathcona and Chinatown has had the highest per-capita rate of COVID cases in Vancouver, although cases across the city are now trending down. Vancouver Coastal Health has said the higher rate of cases in the local health area that includes the Downtown Eastside might reflect higher testing rates in the vulnerable neighbourhood.

Ledger said he’d like more information from the Health Ministry about the intention of the vaccine mandate policy. He said he’s also hearing concerns from workers about a lack of information about COVID-19 outbreaks at worksites — something residents, workers and unions have been concerned about ever since a September 2020 increase in COVID-19 in the Downtown Eastside.

In an emailed statement, the Health Ministry confirmed Ledger and Smith’s interpretation of the vaccine mandate policy, but did not answer questions about why the mandate only applies to workers at sites funded by government or health authorities.

“Outside of the existing provincial health officer orders mandating vaccination, many employers have been seeking sound advice and guidance on vaccination policies that they can make applicable to their situations,” ministry communications staff wrote in the statement. “These employer actions are welcome news to public health.”

*Story updated on Oct. 28 at 10:04 a.m. to correct information about which workers BCGEU represents. BCGEU represents workers at Atira Property Management Inc., not Atira Women's Resources Society.  [Tyee]

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