Dozens of people who lost employment over the City of Windsor’s vaccine mandate have been offered their jobs back.
The city has sent rehire offer letters to 67 of the 84 people terminated for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
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“We’ve been working really closely with the union throughout, talking about the deadlines, making sure those who should have gotten a letter got one on time,” Dana Paladino, the city’s deputy solicitor, told the Star.
The rehire letters went out through registered mail and email in early December, Paladino said. Most people had until Dec. 23 to respond with their intentions about employment, and a few were given until Jan. 11, “depending on the circumstances.”
Regarding the 17 terminated employees who did not receive a letter, Paladino said some terminations “were previously settled through the grievance process or are in the midst of negotiations pending arbitration.” Other positions were previously filled without the possibility of bumping under the collective agreement, and some employees were not offered their jobs back for reasons unrelated to the vaccine mandate.
Of the 67 invited to return to work, 21 were regular full-time employees, and 46 were part-time employees.
“Some employees may have moved on to other positions, and some employees do want to return,” Paladino said. “Once they state their intention, they work with a human resource business partner to work out a start date — some might need retraining depending on the type of job it was, and some could start right away.”
Dave Petten, president of CUPE Local 543, which represents indoor city workers, told the Star the union is glad its members are being given their jobs back, but it believes the city could have rehired them sooner.
“It was our expectation, probably for about a year now, that the employer would bring people back to work,” Petten said. “Time has gone on, and while we are pleased that the employer is returning people to work, we believe it could have been done so much sooner. That would have been our preference.”
City council in September 2021 approved its controversial mandatory vaccine policy for all municipal workers despite opposition from several employee representatives, including Petten. Workers were initially given until mid-November of that year to either provide proof that they had received two COVID-19 vaccine doses or obtain a valid accommodation under human rights legislation. That deadline was later extended until Jan. 4, 2022 to show proof of a first dose and Feb. 1 to get a second dose, or they would be fired.
By January 2022, the city moved to fill the positions of those fired for refusing to provide proof of vaccination.
The time since has been “quite difficult” for the terminated workers, Petten said, “not just from a financial standpoint but also from a mental health and wellness standpoint.
“These members were dedicated staff and felt that they were doing a good job for the community. When the city moved to terminate, it was quite shocking for them and quite difficult for many of them to deal with.”
Although the city lifted its proof of vaccination requirements at city-owned facilities at the end of February 2022 — mirroring a decision by the province to do the same in all settings across Ontario — the vaccine rules for city employees remained in place until November.
On Nov. 10, council voted to rescind its employee vaccine mandate, with councillors agreeing that the policy was no longer an effective or necessary tool to keep people free of COVID.
Petten said the union has filed more than 60 grievances in relation to the vaccine mandate. While the arbitration case has begun, “it will be a long process yet.”
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Petten expects the union will file additional grievances about the amount of time it took for terminated employees to be offered their jobs back. Other grievances will likely arise from the conditions laid out in the rehire letters; Specifically, he said, the city wants to classify the workers’ time away as suspensions, rather than as termination.
“We believe that that suspension isn’t warranted, that there should be nothing on people’s records, but they’re still basically being disciplined,” he said.
The city’s vaccine mandate covered the 3,000-strong workforce, including employees of Windsor Fire and Rescue Services.
The Windsor Police Service suspended its own COVID vaccine mandate in July. There were four employees on unpaid leave because they were either unvaccinated or did not disclose their vaccination status at the time.