LETHBRIDGE, AB – As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout expands, you may be getting a nudge – or even some incentives – from your employer to book an appointment.

While it may seem like a personal decision, Associate Dean of the Dhillon School of Business at the University of Lethbridge, Kelly Williams-Whitt, says it’s well within an employer’s prerogative to express a desire for staff to be immunized.

As a professor of human resources and labour relations, she says employers have a legal obligation to protect the health and safety of their employees, customers and others who may be on their premises  and are faced with balancing the need to provide a safe work environment with individual autonomy.

Williams-Whitt adds in general, organizations are being encouraged to support the vaccine efforts and to try to create the best environment for employees to get them, which may include having vaccine clinics on site for large corporations or giving employees time off during the day to go to their appointment.

But, she says a lot of people would struggle with being told they had to be immunized.

Williams-Whitt says mandating vaccines is much more complicated and from a legal perspective, it’s very contextual.

She says it’s not likely many organizations, especially in Alberta, would mandate vaccines for their employees but notes we could potentially see it in high-risk workplaces like health care centres and long-term care facilities.

An employee always has the right to refuse and for many people, depending on the context of their workplace, Williams-Whitt says they’ll likely be able to simply say “no” if they choose to, without any impact on their employment. However, she says “that has yet to be seen as we go forward. We have never faced a pandemic like this before. So in those workplaces where it’s very high-risk, the law may end up looking a little different in the future.”

During the SARS pandemic (2002-2004), Williams-Whitt says some employers, in Ontario and British Columbia for example, were allowed to require vaccinations while others who tried to do the same, in Alberta for instance, were not.

She says she’s not aware of any cases of mandatory vaccines in the Canadian court system at the moment but notes it’s still very early days as more and more people become eligible to receive the shot.