More and more employers are requiring staff, contractors and visitors to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter the workplace in the public and private sectors. However, there are always exceptions to the rule – and in some cases, those exceptions are personal and complicated.
Healthcare workers in British Columbia must be vaccinated unless they are eligible for medical exemptions, including severe allergic reactions or situations where a person’s health is at risk if they are vaccinated . According to the Ministry of Health, no other exemption will be considered.
But in other workplaces, religious exemptions may come into play, and experts say enforcing these rules is more difficult.
Rumee Ahmed, Canada Research Chair in Theology and Ethics and professor at the University of British Columbia, said that when it comes to an individual’s religious beliefs, they may not correspond to messages from their leaders.
Religion is often open to interpretation, he said.
For example, Christian Science leaders, who historically rely on prayer for healing rather than medicine, published A declaration this year regarding COVID-19 vaccines.
“Our practice is not dogmatic,” the statement read.
“Church members are free to make their own choices about all life decisions, within the law, including whether or not to immunize. These are not decisions imposed by their church.”
Ahmed said there are very small denominations and communities that discourage or ban vaccines, but again, followers are free to make their own decisions.
Human resources consultant Cissy Pau said she hasn’t received any inquiries from clients needing help with religious exemptions – but she said that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen.
Pau, a senior consultant at Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver, said if someone requests a religious exemption, they must get a letter or other documents from their religious leader to verify their status.
“If the employer has a policy that employees should be vaccinated while working and they are presented with a religious exemption, they should try to accommodate to the best of their ability,” she said.
Accommodations could include working from home or requesting regular COVID-19 testing for the individual.
When it comes to formulating a mandatory vaccination policy, there is not much information available to employers – although WorkSafeBC has some information on its website, nothing specifically talks about religious exemptions.
Pau said anyone developing a plan should get legal advice.
“It’s so fraught with potential risks and responsibilities,” she said.
“There haven’t been cases that ended up in our justice system or human rights courts. We haven’t had cases that … give us direction on what can and can’t to arrive.”
Although WorkSafeBC was unable to comment on the matter, it echoed Pau’s advice to seek legal advice to ensure they take into account not only occupational health and safety, but also labor and employment standards.
A federal government directive for executives, obtained by CBC Radio-Canada, advises managers to use their own discretion in determining whether an employee qualifies for a religious exemption to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Ahmed advises employers to be understanding when an employee comes to them with a religious or sincere belief about immunization, and reminds them that over 90 percent of eligible British Columbians have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine -19.
“We need to be as compassionate and accommodating as possible,” he said.