Purolator's intrusive vaccine mandate: a misguided decision by management?

Courier company's extension of mandate deemed unreasonable by arbitrator

Purolator's intrusive vaccine mandate: a misguided decision by management?

In a controversial turn of events, an arbitrator recently criticized Purolator's decision to extend its COVID-19 vaccine mandate beyond June 2022. This ruling stemmed from grievances filed by Teamsters Local Union No. 31 and raised significant questions about workplace safety measures, management decisions, and employee rights. Let’s delve into the details of this case and explore the implications of this decision.

Purolator, a major Canadian courier company, implemented its Safer Workplaces Policy (SWP) on Sept. 15, 2021. This policy required all employees to be vaccinated to access Purolator workplaces, with a compliance deadline set for Dec. 25. The policy went into full effect on Jan. 10, 2022. However, it faced opposition and grievances, particularly from Teamsters Local Union No. 31, representing unvaccinated workers in British Columbia who were placed on unpaid leave or had their employment terminated. Despite evolving medical opinions and the lifting of federal mandates, Purolator extended its policy beyond June 2022, leading to the arbitration.

The arbitrator, Nicholas Glass, scrutinized Purolator’s justifications for extending the mandate. Initially, the SWP was supported by medical opinions, but by Spring 2022, the effectiveness of vaccines against the Omicron variant was in question. As vaccine efficacy waned, the distinction between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees blurred, undermining the mandate’s rationale. The arbitrator also questioned the validity of external vaccination requirements and found that unvaccinated employees did not substantially increase health risks in the workplace. Consequently, the mandate extension was deemed not a reasonable workplace safety measure.

Reasonableness of vaccination policy

Medical efficacy. The declining efficacy of vaccines against newer variants and the equal susceptibility of vaccinated employees challenged the mandate’s validity.

External vaccination requirements: The reliability of this justification was questioned, weakening the mandate’s foundation.

Workplace safety. The arbitrator found that unvaccinated workers did not pose a significantly higher risk than their vaccinated counterparts.

Management decision-making. The decision to extend the mandate appeared to be influenced by factors unrelated to workplace safety, such as fear of admitting previous policy mistakes.

Implications and takeaways

This decision emphasizes the need for organizations to continuously evaluate and adapt their policies in response to evolving scientific evidence and societal norms. Purolator’s case serves as a cautionary tale about rigid policy adherence, especially when the underlying circumstances change and the policy requirements are intrusive. Employers should be vigilant in balancing workplace safety with employee rights and avoid decision-making based on non-safety-related factors.

The arbitration ruling against Purolator’s vaccine mandate extension sheds light on the complexities of managing workplace safety during a pandemic. It underscores the importance of flexible, evidence-based decision-making in response to changing health advisories and legal standards. This case not only impacts Purolator but also serves as a guide for other organizations navigating similar challenges.

For more information, see Teamsters Local Union No. 31 v Purolator Canada Inc., 2023 CanLII 120937.

Ronald S. Minken is the founding lawyer and managing principal at Minken Employment Lawyers, an employment law boutique in the Greater Toronto Area.

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