More than 100 unvaccinated staff at an Ontario jail have been placed on unpaid leave amid a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility, their union said Monday.
Under the Ontario Public Service's safe workplace directive, employees at correctional institutions who are not fully vaccinated are required to complete regular antigen testing.
However, due to a public health order issued by Halton Region Public Health on Nov. 30, the antigen testing is no longer accepted as a substitute for being vaccinated for those who work at the Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton, Ont., where a COVID-19 outbreak was declared on Nov. 4.
"As part of the outbreak management, Halton Region Public Health has asked that all unvaccinated staff do not enter the facility for the duration of the outbreak,” reads a statement from the public health unit.
“This is to protect unvaccinated staff and try to further limit the spread of COVID in this facility given the higher risk for such staff.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General said the public health order means all unvaccinated employees and those who refuse to disclose their vaccination status have been placed on temporary unpaid leave “pending the resolution of the outbreak and/or the local public health unit’s orders.”
“It would not be fair, appropriate or reasonable to place employees who decided to not get vaccinated, or who declined to attest to their vaccination status, on paid leave until the public health order is lifted,” Greg Flood said in a statement.
“Doing so would create operational issues, could compromise our ability to ensure the institution is adequately staffed during this challenging period.”
The head of the corrections sector of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents employees at Maplehurst, said employees were given notice of the public health order on Nov. 30, just one day before unvaccinated staff were put on unpaid leave.
"You can't go from a safe workplace directive to a mandatory vaccination policy overnight," Chad Oldfield said in an interview.
"There has to be the opportunity for people to begin the process of getting fully vaccinated and respond, in turn, how they need to in order to remain compliant with the ministry directives and policies."
Oldfield said about 100 to 120 employees are affected by the new public health older, including workers from the Ontario Correctional Institute who were moved to the Maplehurst Correctional Complex after the Brampton, Ont., facility was temporarily closed due to an outbreak.
He said there's been a "ripple effect" at Maplehurst, with unvaccinated staff "worried about feeding their families," while remaining staff have to take on additional duties.
"It's very stressful for everybody," he said.
Oldfield said OPSEU has been in talks with the Ministry of the Solicitor General to find a resolution.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to resolve something, but discussions are ongoing," he added.
According to the latest figures from Halton Region Public Health, there are currently 80 active cases of COVID-19 at Maplehurst among staff and inmates.
“Halton Region Public Health is concerned about the health and welfare of both staff and inmates at this facility, as well as the potential of this outbreak to cause a surge of cases in our community and beyond,” the public health unit said in its statement.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press