Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson called on the territorial government to show more flexibility and effort to help unvaccinated workers remain in the Northwest Territories during the first day of the new Legislative Assembly session, Nov. 22.
Simpson pressed Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek and Diane Archie, minister responsible for the Northern Territories Power Corporation about the GNWT and NTPC employment vaccination policies.
Both the territorial government and the corporation have a deadline of Nov. 30 where all employees are required to be fully vaccinated as a condition for continued employment.
The GNWT has said some exceptions will be made on a case-by-case basis until people are fully vaccinated.
Simpson pointed out in an exchange with Archie that because of the approaching deadline, the NWT is at risk of losing long-time residents who have built careers in the North, including Indigenous people.
“I don’t want to see people die. I don’t want to see people sick. I don’t want to see them in the hospital. But at the same time, I also don’t want to see people unemployed,” he said.
“I can’t believe that we, as a government, cannot sit down and come up with some solutions to mitigate that.
“When I talk to some of them (workers), they’re looking at moving out of the NWT. That’s pretty well what they’ve got to do if they’re going to be looking for employment.”
Archie said she remains committed to working with employees to try to find solutions, but added that the NTPC in particular has more stringent vaccination rules because most of its employees have to visit communities for capital maintenance purposes and as a result have a high risk of spreading the Covid-19 virus.
She added that many of those workers also have to fly and have to meet federal aviation Covid-19 requirements, too.
“Many employees have to travel into communities (and) that’s where the majority of the work is, in the communities,” she said. “We’ve been challenged in the past by members in small communities that have really not welcomed some of the employees because they are either not vaccinated or coming from outside the Northwest Territories.”
Wawzonek said there are ‘overlapping guidelines’ for territorial civil servants to consider when they enter small communities and provide work.
“GNWT employees are certainly going to have to follow not only our policy, but policies that might be applicable to them,” she said, citing local government if work involves entering municipal or community buildings and federal rules in the case of air travel.
“So there may well be a number of overlapping guidelines that workers are going to have to follow owing to the fact that a variety of levels of government and private organizations are taking … all the steps that we know are best placed to keep people safe.”
She said the GNWT has established cost ranges for accommodations for employees not fully vaccinated, such as with providing personal protective equipment and regular testing. However specific costs aren’t to be known until the full number of workers are known.
“We’re not expecting that (PPEs) to be significant, but certainly the cost of tests can grow to be more significant over time,” she said. “We do have some estimates with ranges of low to high and it depends obviously on what number of public servants we are dealing with. It depends on whether or not that changes over time.”
Number of employees affected
Simpson asked Archie how many employees are expected to be affected after the Nov. 30 deadline and to what extent discussions were happening with either the union or the employer to find accommodations, but she was unable to say precisely.
“We won’t know the number until then (after the Nov. 30 deadline), and yes, we will commit to working with the employees to try and look at some options,” she said.
One person who is unvaccinated and who has built a decade-plus career in Hay River told NNSL Media on Nov. 22 that they have sought an exemption due to personal reasons.
The person, who asked to remain anonymous, said Simpson is right to raise questions about accommodations.
They said that they are uncertain what will happen if employers don’t provide added flexibility before the Nov. 30 deadline and worried about having to leave the NWT because their specialized career experience has taken many years to build.
“When she (Archie) claims that we’re doing everything we can to accommodate people, not one person has had that conversation with me … or said, ‘listen, this is coming from the federal level and there’s nothing we can do. We don’t want to lose you.’ Nothing like that. It’s just been business as usual.
“If you wanted to keep a staff member, you would keep a staff member. If the person had real concerns about getting the jab, a good employer would say, okay, we’re going to work around this.”
The person added that it appears to be a very rare occurrence that an employer will grant accommodation whether it be for medical, religious or other personal or professional reasons.
“This is extreme coercion to get vaccinated and they say it’s for health and safety purposes,” the individual stated, warning that employees are at risk of leaving the territory and negatively impacting their communities.
“What about our mental health? The safety of our families as we enter winter with no income? This is not how Northerners treat each other.
“We’re going to lose long-term Northerners – professionals, tradespeople, service providers, coaches, volunteers, pillars of the community. And for what? Because our employers, leaders, and politicians would not stand up for the North.”