The tumult caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic continues to linger across the country, challenging the recovery efforts of retailers from coast to coast. Though social restrictions in many provinces may continue to loosen as economies endure their gradual reopening, some fear that the virus has not yet been adequately contained and that further waves of its spread could be expected through the Fall and Winter months ahead. And, as vaccination rates are generally considered from a medical and health and safety point-of-view to be the primary forcing function that will either quell or prolong our current situation and the incidents of further COVID-19 cases, retailers are being presented with a philosophical dilemma concerning the unvaccinated among their staff. In fact, according to Suzanne Sears, retail staffing expert and President of Luxury Careers Canada, issues around vaccinations are perhaps the most critical that retailers face today in ensuring a safe and comfortable environment for employees and guests.
“Anecdotally, when we start to develop a clearer understanding of the general public’s perception of the vaccinated and unvaccinated among them, and whether or not they’d feel comfortable shopping in stores where there are unvaccinated employees and customers, the issue immediately takes on massive significance for retailers,” she says. “And, on the employee side, a good majority of the people asked would prefer to work alongside and serve customers who have been fully vaccinated. All of the data, right across the board, is pretty compelling, suggesting strongly that vaccinations is a really key issue for both the suppliers of services and goods as well as the buyers of those services and goods. It’s something that retailers are going to need to address because it’s not going to go away.”
The data that Sears refers to was generated by a recent sample survey of Canadians which indicates that the issue of vaccinations is not one that is necessarily split evenly among the public, but is one that will continue to intensify as a return to “normal” comes increasingly into the balance. According to the survey, 68 percent of those asked believe that vaccinations should be mandatory for retail store staff, while 65 percent of employees are not willing to work with unvaccinated team members. These are statistics that start to highlight a bubbling narrative around health and safety concerns in the workplace, and could very well be the precursor to some heated debate among the general public on the issue. And, as Wagish Yajaman, Occupational Hygienist and Manager, Speciality Services at Workplace Safety and Prevention Services, points out, it’s an issue that’s already prompting conversation within many retail organizations as they currently attempt to navigate it.
“Vaccinations have become available to everyone across the country, and we’ve experienced a relatively effective rollout of the doses,” he says. “However, there is also the freedom of individuals to not take the vaccine. And that’s where the issue and concerns start to rise. Vaccines are well understood to be one of the layers of controls of the virus and one that everyone, if they are able to, should be practicing. At the moment, some jurisdictions have developed or are developing vaccine passports or other kinds of passes that are being distributed that contain an individual’s vaccine records. A province like Ontario hasn’t gone that direction just yet. But others have. And as employers across the country continue to take a closer look at the issue and the concerns that can arise from it, they’re considering ways to address it, primarily from the point-of-view of protecting the health and safety of their employees.”
It’s clear form a health and safety perspective that the impetus for retailers to deal with the vaccination dilemma has been evident for a while. But, with the Canadian Federal Government’s announcement on August 13 that it would be making vaccinations mandatory for all federal employees, and that it would require this obligation to be fulfilled as early as the end of September, came a precedent for all industries to follow. And, closely behind the government, it seems that some retailers are already seriously considering their options when it comes to requirements for employment in order to deal with the issue.
According to a recent poll conducted by KPMG Canada, 62 percent of small- and medium-sized businesses in Canada are developing plans to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for all of their current and future employees. Further, 84 percent agree that vaccines are key to avoiding another lockdown and should be mandatory, and 84 percent support vaccine passports to perform certain jobs or enter certain places. And, some companies have already decided to announce mandatory vaccination requirements for their employees and/or future hires, including all of the countries major banking institutions and Twitter, which has an office in Toronto. Disney in the United States recently came to an agreement with its employees’ union over the issue. And several other companies with operations in Canada – Google, Uber, Lyft and Netflix – are also considering mandatory vaccinations for in-office employees. And, although this seems to be the direction that most organizations will follow, Yajaman points out that the issue of mandatory vaccination requirements could become a very difficult and complicated one for any retailer to resolve.
“These measures may be implemented by organizations with the aim to protect the health and safety of others, but it becomes challenging with respect to the human rights component that’s inherently involved. At the moment, a retailer can ask the question, but the employee isn’t required to answer. So, then what do you do as a retailer in those situations? Your actions could be taken as discrimination if an employee is treated in a different way than others. In the end, the whole issue of taking the vaccine or not is very interesting from the perspective of how we’re going to deal with it.”
Retailer action required
It’s going to be interesting, indeed, as statistics and data continue to generate around the effectiveness of the vaccine or, rather, the ineffectiveness related to not getting it. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), nearly 90 percent (89.8%) of all COVID-19 cases reported since vaccination campaigns began back in December 2020 are among unvaccinated individuals. Further, PHAC data shows that 84.9 percent of Canadians that have been hospitalized with COVID-19 were also unvaccinated, while 82.3 percent of those who died as a result of the virus’ symptoms had not yet received their doses. The data is staggering, and is backed up by research that indicates that people who have been vaccinated are 69 percent less likely to be hospitalized and 49 percent less likely to die from COVID-19 than those who were unvaccinated.
Based on these statistics, it goes without saying that, as vaccinations are one of the most important layers of defence against and containment of the spread of the virus, it’s frustrating for some to follow the slow trajectory of vaccination rates across the country. Currently a less than comfortable 66.1 percent of Canada’s eligible population have been fully vaccinated, far below the 80 percent that’s believed to be required in order to reach herd immunity and begin our emergence out of the pandemic lifestyle. It’s becoming an indictment of the inaction and negligence of some within society – inaction and negligence that Sears says retailers must avoid falling victim to.
“Most of the retailers in Canada have, up until now, been waiting for government action,” she asserts. “Rather than ending up in front of the various provincial labour boards, they’ve been waiting for federal and provincial direction. And now that the direction has arrived, retailers would be doing themselves and their brands a disservice by not attempting to deal with this issue. As we speak, there’s almost an anger building within the vaccinated among us who feel as though the unvaccinated are the reason that we’ve entered another wave and that, if we experience another lockdown, they’ll be solely to blame. There’s a tremendous fear and anger issue that’s about to boil over. And the longer it takes for retailers to develop policy around vaccination requirements, the longer their difficulties around this issue will continue.”