COVID-19 Vaccination and Workplaces

Hamilton’s Medical Officer of Health strongly recommends that local employers enact a COVID-19 workplace vaccination policy to protect your employees and your customers from COVID-19 and the Delta variant. Read the letter issued August 30 from Hamilton’s Medical Officer of Health (PDF, 236 KB).

Promoting COVID-19 vaccine uptake is a critical piece in helping reduce COVID-19 workplace outbreaks and strengthen confidence for a safer return to work. The COVID-19 vaccine is one of the best ways to protect your workplace from the risks of COVID-19. It is safe and highly effective at reducing virus spread and protecting against serious illness.

As an employer, you can encourage employees to get vaccinated  by creating a supportive environment that make vaccination easy, and sharing COVID-19 vaccine information from credible sources. COVID-19 vaccination provides a strong layer of protection for your employees, their families and the broader community.

Note: The information provided in this document does not contain legal advice and should not be relied on or treated as legal advice. Those for whom these recommendations are intended should seek their own legal advice to address their specific workplace circumstances.

Developing a COVID-19 vaccination policy for your workplace

Assess the risk of COVID-19 transmission in your workplace. For example:

  • How many employees are part of your workforce?
  • Can employees keep at least two metres apart while performing their work?
  • Are there circumstances in which masks can or must be removed in the workplace? (This includes employees, customers/patrons and members of the public entering the workplace.)
  • Are employees required to be in close contact with others, at the workplace or in the community while performing their work?
  • How long and how frequent are employees in close contact with other employees, customers/patrons or the public?
  • Does your workplace have: physical barriers when employees cannot keep distance from each other, customers/patrons or the public; good ventilation; and/or personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect employees?
  • Do you have employees who may be at risk for severe illness from COVID-19? Some people may have reduced immunity due to age, pre-existing health conditions or medical treatments.
  • Is your workplace able to offer alternative work for people who require accommodation, for example remote work?

Key components of a workplace vaccination policy

  • Explain purpose of the policy including the risks of COVID-19. Vaccination against COVID-19 is one of the best ways to protect employees who work in a location with common areas and/or where employees have contact with other employees, customers/patrons or the public. The Delta variant of the coronavirus is more contagious, with greater risk for severe illness and hospitalization.
  • Explain who the policy applies to. Will the policy apply to all employees (i.e., not just employees but also contractors (including staff from third party agencies), volunteers, students, etc.)? Is there a separate policy for customers/patrons?
  • Explain that the policy may change as the status of the pandemic changes and/or legislation or public health advice changes.
  • Have a clear communication plan to inform employees about the policy.
  • When determined by the employer to be reasonably necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace or in the community while performing their work, workplace policies should require employees to provide proof of vaccination Alternatively, employees who do not provide proof of vaccination may need to, for example:
    • Indicate that they have a medical exemption, including if the reasons are temporary or permanent. The medical exemption should be written by a licenced primary care provider (i.e., doctor, nurse practitioner) and does not need to include the reason for the exemption.
    • Complete a vaccination education course, with a signed declaration stating that they have reviewed and understood the content. The vaccination education course should include information on:
      • How the COVID-19 vaccines work
      • Vaccine safety related to the development of the COVID-19 vaccines
      • The benefits of vaccination against COVID-19
      • Risks of not being vaccinated against COVID-19
      • Possible side effects of COVID-19 vaccination 

Specify a reasonable date when employees must demonstrate compliance with various elements of the workplace policy.

  • Your workplace COVID-19 vaccination policy should list alternative options for employees who decline to get vaccinated for reasons protected by Ontario’s Human Rights Code, including those unable to complete their COVID-19 vaccination series for medical reasons. The appropriate response(s) may depend on the work of the employee, the type of workplace and consideration of the duty to accommodate, if applicable.
  • Some options to consider include:
    • Use of additional personal protective equipment (PPE), employee relocation and modified work or reassignments.
    • In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, unvaccinated and partially vaccinated employees (who have only received one dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine series) should not be permitted to work in the outbreak area. Employees without vaccination records should be assumed to be unvaccinated.
    • If reassignment is not possible, consider other options including whether unvaccinated employees should receive paid or unpaid leave or use vacation days until it is safe for them to return to the workplace.

Outline the potential consequences for employees who do not fulfill the requirements of the policy.

  • Your COVID-19 workplace vaccination policy should specify how individual vaccination status of employees will be used by the employer to mitigate the health-related risks of COVID-19.
  • Information about employees’ vaccination information must be protected in accordance with applicable privacy legislation. Knowing your employees’ vaccination status may be important to help you take appropriate action quickly, in the event of COVID-19 cases in your workplace, to protect employees, their families, customers/patrons and the general public. This may include sharing that information with public health officials.
  • When collecting information about an employee’s vaccination status:
    • Identify ways to safeguard their personal health information
    • Limit information collected to what is reasonably necessary, e.g., copy of the proof of vaccination for each dose
    • Keep their vaccination information separate from their personnel file
    • Ensure personal health/vaccination information is kept in a secure manner and only used when required

Identify who employees should contact at your organization if they have questions about the policy, to request accommodation, or for more information about how to comply with the policy. The policy should also indicate the person to whom employees should provide proof of vaccination.

Getting fully vaccinated against COVID-19 does not replace the need for following effective and proven COVID-19 public health measures. Local employers must apply all COVID-19 prevention measures for their sector outlined in provincial guidelines and Hamilton Public Health Services’ guidance including, but not limited to:

  • Screening
  • Physical distancing
  • Wearing of masks and eye protection
  • hand hygiene
  • infection prevention and control
  • COVID-19 safety plan

Vaccination education courses

Vaccination and Workplaces Frequently Asked Questions

After vaccination, about 10% of individuals experience common side effects, which may include: pain, redness, swelling at the site where the needle was given, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain and low fever. Serious side effects are rare.

Where possible, consider scheduling shifts 48 hours after vaccination. Bill 284, COVID-19 Putting Workers First Act, 2021 allows employees to claim job-protected paid leave for various COVID-19 reasons including COVID-19 vaccination or for side effects from a COVID-19 vaccination. If time off after vaccination is not planned, employees who are not feeling well enough to return to work following vaccination, should not be required to do so.

Guidance for Screening Vaccinated Individuals - 48 hours (gov.on.ca)

There are mild non-respiratory symptoms (not related to breathing, such as headache, muscle ache, fatigue, joint pain) that can occur with COVID-19 that may also occur in the 48 hours after vaccination as a result of the vaccine. 

In the 48 hours after vaccination, if an employee develops the following symptoms (and no others), and where the symptoms are mild (i.e. the employee feels well enough to work) and symptoms only began after vaccination, the employee can continue to work:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue/tiredness
  • Muscle ache
  • Joint pain

The above guidance only applies to workers who:

  • Are required to be at work in-person AND
  • Have received a COVID-19 vaccine within the 48 hours before coming to work (including day of vaccination, which is considered day 1) AND
  • Do not have a known exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case in the last 14 days.

Pain, redness and swelling at the injection site are more common symptoms of vaccination and are not symptoms that you would have with COVID-19.

Active screening of employees, including after vaccination is required. If COVID-19 is suspected employees should be excluded from work and seek further medical evaluation.

Reference: Guidance for Employers Managing Workers with Symptoms within 48 hours of COVID-19 Immunization

Employers can encourage employees to get vaccinated by:

Promoting vaccination not only helps to protect your employees, but can also protect your workplace by:

  • Reducing the number of employee absences due to COVID-19, which can also impact workforce productivity or ability to operate
  • Keeping your workforce healthier by reducing rates and spread of COVID-19

Receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is voluntary. The Ontario Human Rights Code and other similar laws try to balance people's right to non-discrimination and civil liberties with public health and safety. Organizations and staff are encouraged to be flexible in exploring if accommodation is necessary, including alternate ways an individual may continue to safely work or receive a service without being vaccinated.

It is important to note that mandatory vaccination already occurs in certain settings (e.g. school settings). As more information becomes available about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccinations in reducing COVID-19 spread, it is possible that specific settings will be able to mandate COVID-19 vaccination.

The Hamilton Concierge can provide assistance on how to support staff vaccinations and workplace COVID-19 vaccination policies. You can reach the Hamilton Concierge at (905) 521-3989.

Vaccination is an additional public health measure that protects against COVID-19. Other public health measures that contribute towards a safer workplace should continue to be practised, such as staying home when not feeling well, active screening prior to work, physical distancing, wearing a mask indoors, wearing a mask and eye protection when unable to maintain at least 2 metres distance, regular handwashing, environmental cleaning and disinfection and optimizing ventilation.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act defines employees and employers’ rights and obligations. Employees may refuse to work If they believe it is unsafe for them or another employee. Visit the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development to learn more.

Although the choice to receive vaccination is voluntary, employers may be able to require proof of vaccination to ensure fitness to safely perform work or protect other people. Employees who choose not to be vaccinated may be reassigned/accommodated to other areas of work if deemed necessary to do so.

Organizations should be clear why proof of vaccination is needed and ensure that informed consent is received to obtain this information. More information about the Human Rights Code and COVID-19.

Certain global industries (e.g. airlines) have already announced that they intend to require vaccination proof, subject to medical exemptions. The Canadian government has stated it is looking at requirements around vaccination on international travel in the future.

As more information becomes available about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in reducing COVID-19 spread (and not just protecting the individual against infection), it is possible that additional settings will be able to mandate COVID-19 vaccination.

If your organization is looking to issue proof of vaccination requirements, we recommend that you seek legal advice prior to doing so.

  • Individuals who are fully vaccinated must still quarantine until they speak to public health. They can call in to public health at 905-974-9848 opt 3 or wait for a public health staff member to call. 
  • Workplaces should not be asking partially or fully vaccinated staff who are close contacts to return to the workplace before the 14-day isolation period is over unless public health has determined otherwise.
  • Fully vaccinated contacts who reside in retirement homes or long-term care facilities cannot be excluded from quarantine if they are a close contact

Reference: COVID-19 Fully Vaccinated Individuals: Case, Contact and Outbreak Management Interim Guidance

Guidance for employees who are identified as close contacts and have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine has recently been updated. For guidance, contact Hamilton Public Health at: 905-974 9848 or [email protected].

Under the Reopening Ontario Act, everyone must keep at least 2 metres apart from others who they do not live with, both indoors and outdoors. This applies both within the workplace and lunchroom and outside of the workplace. The regulations outlined in the Reopening Ontario Act continue to apply to people who have been vaccinated.  

All public health measures should continue to be followed after being partially or fully vaccinated. This means staying home when not feeling well, active screening prior to work, keeping 2 metres from others who you do not live with, wearing a mask, wearing a mask and eye protection when unable to maintain at least 2 metres distance, regular handwashing, environmental cleaning and disinfection and optimizing ventilation.

Additional resources