–Files by Will Peters, My Prince George Now
The BC Centre for Disease Control recommends COVID-19 vaccination for people who are pregnant, breastfeeding or who may become pregnant. For more information on pregnancy and vaccination, click here and here.
“I haven’t been the same mother to my kids. More stress, more anxiety. It seems like this should have been one of the happiest times of my life, being at home with my child,” one mother tearfully told My PG Now.
Mothers on maternity leave who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 working in the BC Public Service are not only at risk of losing their jobs but repaying the entirety of their maternity leave top-up benefit as well.
Their stories all share similar key points:
- For these women, maternity leave started before October 2021, and before provincial vaccine mandates were announced for BC Public Service workers.
- They all decided to accept the government’s top-up benefit, which pays about 80% of the usual salary in a given position, expecting to go back to their job on their pre-determined return to work date. This is agreed to with the knowledge that if you quit, find another job, or otherwise miss your return to work date, you will be liable to pay back that amount. This return to work date cannot be postponed.
- The province instituted its vaccination policy for employees on November 8th, 2021, requiring employees to be vaccinated in order to be hired, or continue to work.
- If a mother on maternity leave is unvaccinated and is denied an exemption, they are in a position to miss their return to work date and be liable to have to pay back the entirety of the top-up benefit, from $20,000 all the way up to $50,000 in some cases. Or, they can prove vaccination and return to work without a problem.
When signing the contract agreeing to take this benefit, these mothers had no idea that the Government’s policies and terms of their employment could change while on leave.
A statement from the Provincial Government to My PG Now reads: “The vaccination policy stipulates that BC Public Service employees who do not receive two doses of vaccination against COVID-19, or refuse to disclose their vaccination status, and do not have an approved exemption request, are to be placed on a leave without pay for a period of at least three months, after which they may be terminated.”
All of the women requested that their identities remain anonymous, as they all have expressed fears for their jobs and ability to fairly navigate their situations if they are named or are identifiable.
One mother says, “we did this in good faith. We weren’t trying to get money out of them, we had no idea this could happen.”
According to her, a group of around 30 mothers from all parts of the province, working in the BC Public Service has formed, all in similar situations with their own maternity leaves.
We have spoken with seven.
“Myself and women that I know got jobs in government because that was one of your perks,” a second mother said, regarding the maternity leave benefits and policy.
She went on her leave during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020 before the vaccine was rolled out to the public.
During her time away, the policy was enacted and the union released this hour-long video to its employees, detailing the policy and its implications.
In the video, Labour Lawyer John Rogers says “if people are adamant, they have the right to say I am not going to be vaccinated, but the employer does have the right to take action against you.”
Since not disclosing her vaccination status she is currently working from home waiting for a verdict on her exemption request, a situation that is not unique. If it is denied, she will be liable to repay between $20,000 to $25,000, as well as finding herself unemployed.
Working from home now, she feels she can be properly accommodated in her role remotely.
“There are all kinds of accommodations that can be done, but it feels like the employer is really uninterested.”
Many of the mothers are either in the process of applying for or have been denied accommodations.
One says she can, and has successfully done her job 100% remotely in the past.
She said “at this point, it would just be punitive if I lose my job,” and “it’s like they want to make examples out of people… It is absolutely cruel in a country like Canada.”
They say the government has a duty to accommodate which is not being met or attempted in her case.
In the Managers’ Guide to Reasonable Accommodation in the BC Public Service, the following is stated (page 3):
“Accommodation refers to modifying employment requirements, rules or policies that could be considered discriminatory because they have a negative effect on an individual or protected group.”
“In the employment context, the protected grounds are:
• Indigenous identity
• place of origin
• political belief
• marital status
• family status
• sexual orientation
• physical or mental disability
• gender identity or expression
• criminal or summary conviction offences unrelated to the employment or the intended employment of that person”
Notably missing is any mention of vaccination and anything in the medical space.
A representative from the BC Public Service says employees who are unvaccinated can be granted an exemption if being unvaccinated is not a choice.
While they said a lot of the process is handled on a case-by-case basis, there are no deviations to this policy.
If approved for an exemption, and you are not a “front desk worker” (required to physically be in attendance to perform your job), they say the duty to accommodate says you can be allowed to work the same position from home.
If you are unvaccinated in the exact same position, you will be denied the accommodation to work from home, and instead will be terminated – cited as a “violation of terms of employment” according to the same Public Service representative.
For someone who is approved for an exemption but works a job requiring physical attendance, another representative says “efforts are made to place the employee in a lateral/comparable position elsewhere in the BC Public Service where the duties can be performed from home on a full-time basis. Employees can be offered lower-level positions as placement opportunities where no position at the same level as their previous role is available or unsuitable.”
A BC Public Service employee is also allowed to work two of five days a week from home, if possible with their job, which only requires immediate approval from a direct supervisor. This policy has been in place since before the pandemic when working from home became commonplace.
Staff can apply to increase this to more than two days (up to five) by submitting a request higher up the chain, all the way to the deputy of their given ministry. Once again, this is only an option for vaccinated staff.
Another mother described her situation as “coercion” – submit to the policy or lose your job and owe tens of thousands of dollars.
When asked about this, the Public Service representative said “That’s an opinion. That’s an opinion about someone not liking the terms of employment.”
Terms of employment that changed after the contract was signed, and maternity leave started.
They add, “in a really challenging situation, I recognize.”
One mother went on maternity leave in 2019 until early 2021. She was able to return to work for four months before starting her second maternity leave.
Now approaching her return to work date, both maternity leaves are impacted by the repayment estimate, as the time back at work was not sufficient to pay off the first leave.
With two young children after roughly three years out of work, she is facing a near $50,000 repayment estimate and will not be eligible for EI. She was denied accommodation to resume working from home.
“I believed I was providing security for my family, I had a permanent position to return to,” she said.
She was told it is a difficult choice, but a choice nonetheless.
Another mother in this situation has already been denied the exemption, terminated, and has been served a $22,000 repayment.
She says the repayment would be made in multiple multi-thousand dollar payments, or one lump sum. Either way, it is due back within one year.
The family is currently in the process of grieving the repayment, but if that grievance is denied, she says so too is the option for staggered repayments. She has no idea how long the process will be.
“I can’t do it,” she said. “We have a newborn and are trying to pay our mortgage and other bills.”
A common fear among these young families. “It is a huge chunk of change,” one said, looking at $30,000 potentially owed back.
“We have a mortgage and two children. With the crazy economy and inflation, to have the little savings you have ripped out of your hand just seems crazy.”
She continued, saying “I haven’t been the same mother to my kids. More stress, more anxiety. It seems like this should have been one of the happiest times of my life, being at home with my child.”
“You’re fired, and you’re in debt to us,” another said. “Already we are financially strained. It is pretty scary.”
When asked what the end goal for easing these policies is, the Public Service representative said they will be reviewed again in the fall, as they are still taking caution for another potential spike in COVID-19 cases once cooler weather arrives.
They also note that “as of Aug. 8, 2022, 231 people have been terminated due to non-compliance with the COVID-19 vaccination requirement. We do not track statistically, how many of these cases arose where the employee was returning from parental leave, but can anecdotally advise that this number is quite small.”
Should anyone in this situation provide proof of vaccination, they would be able to return to work without issue.
Across the province, 84.1% of eligible residents have been fully vaccinated, and 96.7% have received at least one dose. You can find that information here.