In October, an Alberta court ruled that the Minister of Education’s direction to school boards banning mandatory masking was ultra vires (she would need to enact a regulation). A month later, the UCP cabinet passed a regulation banning masking mandates as well as barring schools from switching to online-only classes.
At the time this regulation was passed, schools were seeing unprecedented levels of staff and student absenteeism due to illness (due to a combination of COVID, RSV, and influenza—all airborne illnesses). Barring masking and online classes removed two very effective ways employers can control the spread of these diseases and protect workers (and children) from serious (and potentially fatal) illness.
Yesterday, Premier Danielle Smith announced that MLAs are calling organizations that are in receipt of government funding and asking them to rescind mandatory vaccine mandates. (At this point, vaccination provides modest protection against contracting COVID but does a good job attenuating the consequences of getting COVID. This still makes vaccination a useful component of any hazard--control strategy.).
According to CBC, Smith said:
"For instance, the Arctic Winter Games wanted $1.2 million from us to support their effort and they were discriminating against the athletes, telling them they had to be vaccinated," Smith said at a news conference in Edmonton on Monday.There was no indication what “new evidence” was offered to this organization. And, while no formal policy linking receipt of funding to rescinding vaccine mandates appears to exist (yet), the implicit threat to current and future funding is pretty clear.
"So we asked them if they would reconsider their vaccination policy in the light of new evidence and they did."
At this point, I think the data is clear that public-sector employers have been told to (and, in some cases, legally enjoined from) taking the steps necessary to control occupational diseases. The government is also likely interfering in the enforcement of OHS laws (although the evidence here is more anecdotal). Not surprisingly, the result is a high level of avoidable work-related illness:
The data in the table above understates COVID claims in the public-sector because teachers are, for the most part, outside of the ambit of workers’ compensation legislation in Alberta.
What can workers do? Well, worker can wear masks, although single-person masking is much less effective than group masking. Workers might also get together and agree to group masking in the absence of employer support.
Work-refusal are also an option. But, since OHS seems unwilling to engage with aerosol hazards, refusals are likely to only work if they are carried out by a group that is prepared to risk sanction for engaging in an illegal strike. I see no appetite for supporting this kind of job action in Alberta’s labour movement.
Finally, workers can remember that the UCP was happy to sacrifice their health and their lives (and the health and lives of their children) in order to cater to anti-vax voters and cast their ballot in the next election with that in mind.
-- Bob Barnetson