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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

Council passes seven-option COVID-19 vaccination policy, with four amendments

by Sylene Argent

At the October 18 Council meeting, a majority Essex Council vote passed a COVID-19 vaccination policy that affects Town staff, in addition to Council members, committee members, and board volunteers when it comes to entering Town-owned facilities.


The draft policy was first introduced to Council at the October 4 meeting, however, the policy was adopted on Monday evening with four amendments, after Council had a chance to voice concerns.  


When first introducing the policy, CAO Doug Sweet explained administration was presenting a draft mandatory staff vaccination policy. He said the Town of Essex would be the last local municipality to bring a policy of this kind to their Council.


He noted the policy is about providing a safe working environment for staff.


The draft policy included seven options staff can choose from. The first two options include that the employee provides proof of status and is fully vaccinated; or provides proof of status and confirms the first dose, with intention to be fully vaccinated by the Town’s selected date of November 17.


Other options include that the employee is unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons or a bona fide religious exemption and would also have to complete rapid antigen testing every 72-hours. Employees could also elect not to be vaccinated for personal matters and complete rapid antigen testing every 72-hours. Committee or Council members who chose not to vaccinate would have to be tested before entering a Town facility, they would have to provide a rapid antigen testing that is no older than 48-hours.


The sixth option is not consenting to provide vaccine status and completing rapid antigen testing every 72-hours.


Option seven includes not consenting to provide vaccine status and refusing to complete rapid antigen testing every 72-hours at own cost, or consenting to provide vaccine status, but electing not to be vaccinated and refusing to complete rapid antigen testing every 72-hours.


In the draft policy, the cost for testing would only be covered by the Town for those who were exempt for medical or religious reasons. Some of the Council members had concerns about that, and the use of the word “termination” as a possible disciplinary action for option seven.


Because Council members voiced many concerns about the policy, a majority Council vote passed Councillor Steve Bjorkman’s motion to defer the matter, as he believed Council needed to talk further on the matter before the next meeting to give administration direction on how to proceed.


On Tuesday, October 12, Council met to discuss the matter during a special meeting.


Sweet wanted Council to provide Administration direction on the matter at this meeting, so an updated policy would be presented at the October 18 Council meeting for adoption. Ultimately, Council moved that administration come back to the October 18 meeting with the policy updated with four amendments.


Sweet presented four amendment items for Council to consider, based on the concerns voiced at the previous meeting.


In the original policy, those who chose not to vaccinate for medical, religious, or personal reasons were to take an educational program on COVID-19 vaccinations. In the new policy, all of the Town’s employees, regardless of vaccination status, will take part in an educational program. The updated policy will also include a three-month timeline for review with Council input, will reduce costs of testing for all, and remove the term “termination” as a course of disciplinary action for those who wish to choose option seven.


Manager of Human Resources, Brandi Sieben, added that in the non-compliance section, that those who refuse to be vaccinated or complete rapid antigen testing that they will be placed on unpaid leave, but remain at risk for progressive disciplinary action that may include a verbal or written warning in addition to unpaid leave.


Sieben said the Town’s Nurse Practitioner will be available to administer the COVID-19 rapid tests to employees who require them to ensure the tests are valid. She added she looked into cost-reduction matters and noted the Town will work with the Windsor-Essex Region Chamber of Commerce for reduced costs of testing kits for all those who need it.


It was also noted at the special meeting that the funding the Town received from upper levels of government to compensate for COVID-19 could be used for the testing costs, if needed.


“It is very clear you were listening to us at the last meeting and heard our comments,” Councillor Kim Verbeek said at the special meeting last week.


“This is probably the hardest vote. It is something not in our wheelhouse. I am so impressed with our staff. You guys are hitting it out of the park,” Councillor Sherry Bondy said of the four amendments presented.


At the special meeting, Bondy and Councillor Chris Vander Doelen suggested the Town look at those with natural immunity as exemptions.


Council passed a motion at the October 18 meeting to approve the vaccination policy with the four amendments included.


Bondy said the policy is the best in the region. She said with the options, employees can tell they are cared about.


During the October 18 meeting, Bondy put forth another motion, to bring Essex’s COVID-19 vaccination policy forward to other local municipalities and the County of Essex, so they can review it and consider it. She spoke of how the County’s policy does not allow for testing to be an option and how there have been EMS workers placed on unpaid leave, and she is worried about EMS response time.


It is about sharing information, she said.


“This is the opportunity for the Town of Essex to show leadership and shine on a regional-level,” Bondy said, adding no one in Windsor-Essex should be off work if there is a policy that allows them to get tested.


Vander Doelen said this would be inappropriate because it would interfere with another level of government and labour negotiations. He said the County is aware of what Essex is doing with its policy and can take it to heart if they want. Councillor Morley Bowman agreed with Vander Doelen as each group needs to design their own policy or their own group.


Bjorkman said this in not telling other municipalities what to do, but sharing the details of the policy that they believe is a good policy.


Deputy Mayor Richard Meloche said the County has already debated and done its background work and decided what it wants to do.


In a recorded vote, Bondy, Verbeek, Bjorkman, Garon were in support of Bondy’s motion, and Vander Doelen, Meloche, Bowman, and Snively were opposed. The motion failed.  


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