Minister says mandatory vaccine could have left GNWT without enough workers
Caroline Wawzonek says requiring that all NWT government staff submit proof of vaccination by November 30 could have left some communities without enough workers, so an alternative was provided.
Wawzonek, as finance minister, is responsible for GNWT human resources. The current government-wide policy – which may vary in specific areas or agencies – requires that staff either have proof of vaccination or submit to mandatory wearing of PPE and testing.
This week, the NWT government amended its human resources website to make clear that an alternative to submitting proof of vaccination existed.
But Wawzonek rejected the notion that the GNWT had backtracked on its October 18 statement, which read: “As of November 30, 2021, all GNWT employees will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”
That statement contained no reference to a backup measure involving PPE and testing.
“That’s always been in the policy,” Wawzonek told Cabin Radio of the option to wear a mask and be tested for Covid-19 instead. (Read a full transcript of the interview below.)
“There was always the intention to allow the opportunity that individuals who didn’t have the ability to provide a proof of vaccine, or were choosing not to provide a proof of vaccine, would have the alternative.”
Without doing so, the minister said, the GNWT risked losing enough staff that essential services in some communities could shut down.
“The rationale behind it is what we saw happening in other jurisdictions of, you know, shortages of workers, particularly in essential services,” Wawzonek said.
“Right now we’re sitting at about 70 percent who have, I believe, as of today provided their proof of vaccine. Human nature being what it is, I suspect we’re gonna get a flood of them in the waning days before November 30. And then we’ll know what situation we’re dealing with.
“I don’t want to be in a situation where small communities that depend on a handful of government workers for essential services are suddenly finding themselves without those workers. We can’t be in a situation where some of the essential services that the GNWT provides – in the context of still dealing with the pandemic – suddenly we don’t have critical workers.
“I am hopeful we will not be at that point. But until I can assure myself that we’re not, we did provide this opportunity that if there’s a cohort of people that are saying they don’t want to provide their proof of vaccine, they’re going to have an alternative.”
Policy will keep evolving
The leaders of at least two large NWT businesses, employing dozens of workers, have privately expressed concern that the GNWT providing an alternative to submitting proof of vaccination makes it harder for their own businesses to enforce a mandatory vaccination policy.
Wawzonek, acknowledging policies stricter than the GNWT’s exist, said she sympathized but did not view her government’s role that way.
“I’m disappointed that they’re finding that the GNWT’s policy would impact their policy,” she said.
“There are a lot of large companies that are demanding mandatory vaccines without the same sorts of opportunities for any mitigation. The federal government being one of them.”
The minister said she will “closely” watch the statistics once November 30 is reached and suggested employees can expect the policy to change in future.
After speaking with Cabin Radio, Wawzonek gave an example in the NWT’s legislature, suggesting she may change who is responsible for funding Covid-19 tests – currently the GNWT is using supplies acquired from the federal government, at no cost to staff taking them – if more employees than expected choose to wear a mask and get tested instead of submitting proof of vaccination.
“We are in a pandemic. I am tired of being in the pandemic, I would like the pandemic to be over. I would like to be able to be in charge of a public service that is providing services to the public in a way that we all recognize as normal,” Wawzonek told Cabin Radio.
“Until we get back there, I am going to continue to take the steps that I need to, to keep people safe and everyone else safe, knowing that there are some distinct things in the Northwest Territories that I have to consider to keep things running.”
This interview was recorded on November 25, 2021. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Listen to this interview on the Friday, November 26 edition of Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News.
Ollie Williams: The GNWT’s mandatory vaccination policy. It’s not really mandatory any more, is it, minister?
Caroline Wawzonek: I’m not sure what clever question you’re getting at, Ollie. It is mandatory that all GNWT employees by November 30 have to provide a proof of vaccination. If they don’t we are accommodating, for now, with mandatory PPE and mandatory testing.
It’s not meant to be a clever question. On October 18, the GNWT said: mandatory vaccination for all GNWT employees. Still at the start of this week, the GNWT’s website said: mandatory vaccination for all employees. But it doesn’t say that any more. It provides an accommodation: mandatory wearing of PPE and regular testing. The GNWT has taken a step back. Why did it choose to do that?
That’s always been in the policy. The idea of having an alternative for people who didn’t want to provide their proof of vaccine has been since early days – in terms of consultation with the workforce, with the union – it’s been since early days that they’d have the option to have a mask or other PPE as appropriate by the department. And then the alternative of which? Then they are on leave without pay. So this isn’t a new approach to how we’re doing it.
Forgive me, it is. Because if it isn’t a new approach, it is certainly a new communication of that approach. If you go back and look at the news release of October 18, you look at what the website said before the start of this week… we have emails from a fair number of employees who assumed they were losing their jobs at the end of this month because their understanding – and, frankly, my understanding – of the GNWT’s communication of this was that vaccination was going to be mandatory. It has changed, that communication, hasn’t it?
Yeah, it’s – I mean, I’ve certainly also had inquiries that come in from employees or from MLAs on behalf of their employees, saying they’re thinking they’re going to lose their jobs. And we’ve been responding throughout to say exactly what I’m saying, which is that the policy has been: you’re expected to provide your proof of vaccine by November 30. If you choose not to, or cannot provide that proof of vaccine by November 30, there would be guidelines coming out department by department, providing what level of PPE would be required, and in the alternative of which, at that point – PPE and testing – at that point, that person would go on leave without pay. So not losing their jobs, but obviously losing their source of income.
So vaccination is not mandatory. What made the GNWT decide that it didn’t need to be?
So, again, this has always been the intention from the start, to provide that ability – and I realize the federal government’s policy is a lot more strict, and there are certainly some policies across the country that are more strict, saying literally it is vaccine or you’re on leave of some sort. Part of the reason we did this initially – and I will say initially, you might recall, it was actually essential workers only. And then it–
And then it was upgraded, in very explicit language, to say all workers must be vaccinated.
It was upgraded to all workers but there was always the intention to allow the opportunity that individuals who didn’t have the ability to provide a proof of vaccine, or were choosing not to provide a proof of vaccine, would have the alternative. Look, and the rationale behind it is what we saw happening in other jurisdictions of, you know, shortages of workers, particularly in essential services. Right now we’re sitting at about 70 percent who have, I believe, as of today provided their proof of vaccine. Human nature being what it is, I suspect we’re gonna get a flood of them in the waning days before November 30. And then we’ll know what situation we’re dealing with.
I don’t want to be in a situation where small communities that depend on a handful of government workers for essential services are suddenly finding themselves without those workers. We can’t be in a situation where some of the essential services that the GNWT provides – in the context of still dealing with the pandemic – suddenly we don’t have critical workers. I am hopeful we will not be at that point. But until I can assure myself that we’re not, we did provide this opportunity that if there’s a cohort of people that are saying they don’t want to provide their proof of vaccine, they’re going to have an alternative.
So we could have been in a situation at the end of this month, if vaccination had been mandatory, that the government simply wouldn’t have been able to function with the number of people who would have had to have left?
I hope not. I honestly hope that the percentage of people who work in the public service is actually high in terms of those who are vaccinated. Anecdotally, that’s what I’m hearing. But until I see it on paper, yeah, I want to make sure that we are finding that balance between telling people ‘Look, this is the best way to protect yourself, protect your co-workers, protect the community we serve.’ But until we know exactly what the situation looks like, yeah, we are definitely going to keep that sort-of side option that if you simply cannot or will not provide your proof of vaccine, the sky is not going to fall tomorrow, we are going to still continue to function. And we’re going to have these alternatives in place as best we can.
There are business owners – owners of significant businesses, hundreds of employees – who have expressed concern to me that they perceive this as the GNWT backing off the idea of mandatory vaccination, and it’s making it harder for them to establish that kind of policy themselves. Do you have sympathy for that?
Yeah, I absolutely do have sympathy for that. I think people should all please go get vaccinated. If you’re concerned about getting vaccinated, please go talk to your healthcare worker. I said that in the House yesterday, and I’d certainly say it again, this is the single strongest tool that we have to combat this disease that’s taking people’s lives across the world. I guess I’m disappointed that they’re finding that the GNWT’s policy would impact their policy, there are a lot of large companies that are demanding mandatory vaccines without the same sorts of opportunities for any mitigation. The federal government being one of them.
The largest employer in the territory just said, ‘It’s alright, you can get around this.’
Well, I’d really rather they not treat this as a ‘getting around this.’ I mean–
It is, though, isn’t it? It’s an alternative. You don’t have to be vaccinated.
Yep, you don’t have to be vaccinated, and then you’re going to have to have your mandatory testing. And you’re going to have to have mandatory PPE. And if there are still refusals at that point, then people will be on leave. And we’ve also made pretty clear in the policy that there would always be an intention to review the policy. So, it already got reviewed. You know, this only started in August, and we’re still only in November. So it’s already been reviewed once and expanded to being applicable to all GNWT employees. It’s going to continue to be reviewed as we get the information about what situation we’re dealing with, in terms of our employees,
How frequently will it be reviewed?
I have been watching the evolution of this quite closely. It’s my responsibility to review it.
How frequently will it be reviewed?
I am going to be looking for those numbers on November 30, I can assure you. You know, there’s a number of issues. I’m actually – I’m happy to sit down and have this conversation, because I think there have been a lot of inquiries coming to me as well. And I can’t say it enough, if you’re a GNWT employee, please go and do – as a public servant – what you can to protect the public you serve. Please consider getting your vaccine or talking to someone to be informed, yourself, about it. You know, again, we already modified the policy to be expanded to everyone. I do anticipate there’s going to continue to be evolution of this policy over the next few months, whether it’s in the form of the extent to which it’s going to be applied, whether it’s in the form of what kind of tests are going to be required, what kind of PPE will be required. I do think those things will evolve, just as the response to this pandemic has evolved.
Speaking of the evolution of testing, I know more information has gone out about that this week. Not everyone may have heard it yet. How is testing going to work?
Right now, we are fortunate to have, I’d say, approximately enough tests for the first couple of months – again, based on our best-possible estimate of what number of employees we’re dealing with. We have procured tests from the federal government. They’re rapid at-home tests, the PanBio tests some people have perhaps heard about. We will be getting those packages delivered to employees in December for those who would need them. And again, as I said, we have about a couple of months’ worth to be able to provide them without cost to the employee. Once that runs out, again, looking at what numbers we might be dealing with, I think there’s likely to be some changes in terms of whether people would be expected to pay for their tests or not.
How did you decide initially that the taxpayer ought to start by paying?
Initially, we had contact with the union and a town hall with employees discussing what the options would be, trying, again, to get a sense of: What is the magnitude of the number of people we’re dealing with? What divisions and departments are they in? What services do they provide? I am concerned, again, looking at small communities and looking at essential services, that we not have an interruption of those services in the middle of a pandemic.
But I am very live to the fact that those who have gone out and gotten themselves vaccinated – and are seeing this as them doing their duties – are not happy at the idea that they would have to pay. Most citizens – we’re at 81 percent, if I recall correctly? – are vaccinated. So, you know, I’m hoping we’re dealing with a small number. And once we have a sense of where those numbers are, what the numbers are, I think at that point we can then consider a phased approach to change what the expectations are.
Obviously, there are pressures from all sides on this issue. There are certainly pressures that you just mentioned from people who are fully vaccinated and who do not understand why the territorial government is providing this alternative and is then asking taxpayers to fund it for the time being. There are pressures on the other side from people who feel as though their livelihoods are on the point of being taken away over what they perceive to be a very personal choice. Do you find it an impossible position to be in, to be the person calling the shots – almost literally?
It’s not an impossible position. It is the position, right? I mean, that is sort-of the challenge at some point of having accountable ministers. At some point, you do have to be the person that says: ‘I’ve taken everything into account, I’ve considered all my options, and I’m doing my best to try to find a balance.’ We have had a number of emails that come in from both sides, and vehement, right? People are deeply emotional about this. And I appreciate that, and I’m happy to receive their emails.
We are in a pandemic, I am tired of being in the pandemic, I would like the pandemic to be over. I would like to be able to be in charge of a public service that is providing services to the public in a way that we all recognize as normal. And until we get back there, I am going to continue to take the steps that I need to, to keep people safe and everyone else safe, knowing that there are some distinct things in the Northwest Territories that I have to consider to keep things running.