Electrical employers ‘have to be very agile’ on COVID vaccination updates

Journal of Commerce | Dan O’Reilly | November 15, 2021

A recently completed survey has shed a spotlight on Canada’s electrical sector employers’ vaccination and return to work policies. But the survey is very much a snapshot in time, says the head of the industry association that conducted it.

“I would say the situation right now is very fluid. Many companies are still working on or finalizing their COVID policies,” says Michelle Branigan, chief executive officer of Electricity Human Resources Canada (EHRC) on its second annual COVID-19 survey.

“Of course the situation is Ontario for example is very different from that in Alberta or Saskatchewan so public health advice will be constantly reviewed. Health and safety is always the number one concern for the electricity sector, along with grid reliability.”

Based in Ottawa, the EHRC is a national non-profit organization supporting the human resources needs of the Canadian electricity and renewable energy sector. Its membership ranges from utilities and unions to government departments, consultants, contractors and academia.

In keeping with a mandate to keep those stakeholders informed on issues and trends that will have a bearing on the industry, the organization began working on the in-house survey in August.

“We had heard from many of our stakeholders about their desire to hear what others in the industry were going to do to address the whole issue of return to the office and vaccinations,” says Branigan on the purpose and content of the survey.

Distributed electronically via email and also shared on social media, the survey was sent to approximately 200 employers ranging from large utilities to associations to small businesses beginning on Sept. 8. Participants were asked to respond by the Sept. 23.

“We wanted to keep it simple. There is a lot of survey and Zoom fatigue out there,” says Branigan on why the survey was limited to 15 questions.

Companies were asked about their approach to COVID-19 immunization requirements and whether they would make vaccination mandatory or simply encourage it. A follow up question in the case of voluntary policies was whether the company would require unvaccinated employees to complete regular COVID testing.

Responses were varied and there was no uniform consensus, she says.

Twenty-five per cent of employers indicated they would actively encourage vaccinations, but not make it mandatory. Another 25 per cent also said they won’t enforce vaccination, but employees will require regular COVID testing.

Nineteen per cent are making vaccinations obligatory by a certain date. Of those companies, 20 per cent are relying on employees to self-report while 42 per cent will ask for some sort of proof such as vaccine receipts/passports, says Branigan.

Another 17 per cent of survey participants are unsure what policies they will enforce. There were also a small number of companies with mixed approaches, such as requiring double vaccination to return to the office or travelling for business.

And, of course, the new federal government vaccine mandates require airplane and train travellers to be fully vaccinated, she points out.

“We are starting to see plans for a return to in-person conferences,” says Branigan, noting she will be attending three industry conferences this month.

At the same time, she added companies are reducing their travel commitments and budgets compared to pre-COVID times.

A key question posed to employers who are requiring vaccination was whether they have concerns. More than 60 per cent replied they do have concerns about resistance from employees who are not in a protected category, but are refusing to get the vaccine or who oppose vaccination generally, she says.

Still to be determined on industry decisions will be the impact of the federal government strict mandatory policies on the nuclear industry, which is federally regulated, and the position of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, she says.

In a Sept. 21 policy statement on vaccine mandates, the commission said mandating and requiring proof of vaccination to protect people at work or when receiving services is “generally permissible,” under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

In assessing the survey findings, Branigan said electrical sector employers “have to be very agile in a time of great change.”