A B.C. labour arbitrator has upheld Coca-Cola’s vaccination policy for employees in B.C.
Teamsters Local 213 brought the complaint on behalf of 400 union members who work across locations in Richmond, Coquitlam and Chilliwack.
Coke Canada brought in the policy for their approximately 6,000 employees on Oct. 26, 2021. The Policy required that employees must have received one approved vaccine dose by December 1, 2021, and two doses by January 1, 2022. Employees who failed to get vaccinated were warned of disciplinary measures like suspension without pay or firing.
Coca-Cola’s Director of Labour Relations for Canada, Jose Alonso, testified that the policy was brought in to protect workers and minimize disruptions from COVID outbreaks.
Prior to the policy, there were full shutdowns at Coca-Cola facilities in Regina and Lachine, a partial shutdown in Brampton and a major clean-up in Kelowna. Two workers at a Calgary facility died from COVID-19.
But the Lower Mainland facilities were largely spared outbreaks until the Omicron variant drove a rapid increase of infections in Dec. 2021 into January.
Alonso said the did not know how many of those infected had been vaccinated and how many had not.
The union argued that the policy amounted to a “forced medical procedure” that was a “gross invasion” of employee rights. They pointed to continued infections after the policy came into effect as proof that it wasn’t a viable means for controlling COVID infections.
To support their case, the union called 30-year employee Alec Kaloesnichenko as a witness. Kaloesnichenko has been on unpaid leave since the policy was enacted. He is married, has four children and is the sole income earner for the family.
Kaloesnichenko testified that he was infected with COVID in December and argued that he did not need to be vaccinated because he had natural immunity that was “just as strong or stronger” than getting vaccinated.
Several peer-reviewed studies have found that previous COVID infection offers minimal long-term immunity against Omicron variants.
Arbitrator Randall Noonan concluded that the policy was not unreasonable and dismissed the grievance.
Noonan noted that neither side called an expert witness to testify on the efficacy of vaccination policies in curbing COVID transmission in the workplace.
“Where there is no better scientific evidence properly before an employer when a policy is enacted or before an arbitration panel, the best evidence is the statements and orders made by proper authorities such as the Provincial Health Officer.”
This is not the first time a B.C. labour arbitrator has dismissed grievances over vaccination policies. In April, Arbitrator Gabriel Somjen ruled that B.C. Hydro’s vaccination policy was reasonable and outweighed the “significant intrusion” on the interests of the employees.