A special Cariboo Regional District board meeting has been called for Wednesday afternoon to discuss the board’s request to defer the implementation of a workplace COVID-19 vaccine policy.
As of Monday afternoon, Chief Administrative Officer John MacLean had not yet announced a decision regarding the board’s recommendation to defer the policy. The board vote followed a lengthy discussion about concerns over the policy and how it would impact volunteer fire halls and their members.
A communications official with the CRD told the Free Press that Wednesday’s meetings will discuss the “next steps” following Friday’s board vote.
“Currently we can share the good news that the large majority of the region’s volunteer firefighters and other emergency responders have met the vaccine requirement,” Chris Keam said in an email.
Directors on the Cariboo Regional District board are recommending that a workplace policy requiring employees – including volunteer firefighters – to be vaccinated against COVID-19 be put on hold for up to two months.
CRD directors voted 8-5 in favour Friday of recommending that Chief Administrative Officer John MacLean – whose decision it was in November to institute the policy – defer the implementation to allow time for further discussion with volunteer fire departments. The CRD oversees 14 volunteer fire departments in 100 Mile, Williams Lake and Quesnel.
MacLean has not yet responded to a request as to whether he will defer the policy, set to take effect Monday, Jan. 17.
The motion to recommend deferral was tabled by Director Al Richmond (108 Mile Ranch – Lac La Hache), who said there has been “quite a reaction to this policy” since it was announced last month.
“There are many things that have come up since this was done in November and since our discussions in December,” Richmond said. “It shows strength in an organization to pause, back up and revisit… we need to sit down with the folks who are near and dear to our communities and who give back to our communities, and try to find a way to work through this.”
Some volunteer firefighters in the Cariboo have spoken out against the policy, expressing concerns about losing members once the requirement is in place.
Lone Butte fire chief Jon Grieve released a statement online Thursday saying their hall would no longer be able to provide medical first responder assistance due to insufficient staffing.
“It pains us to restrict this service temporarily until restrictions ease but in the community’s best interest we cannot offer this service without confidence (until) we have enough members to both attend and remain available for another call,” Grieve wrote.
A petition calling on CRD directors to exempt volunteer firefighters from the policy, created by an Interlakes member, has collected more than 3,000 signatures since it was launched last week.
Richmond said Friday the two halls in his area – 108 Mile Ranch and Lac La Hache – don’t foresee any operational issues.
Director Maureen LeBourdais (150 Mile – Horsefly – Likely) also noted she has received more feedback from residents who support the policy than oppose it.
“Not everyone saw this as a negative, both constituents and firefighters,” LeBourdais said.
However, some directors said they have been against the policy from the start.
“I do not support these mandates and I’ve been pretty clear on this from the beginning,” Director Angie Delainey (Dog Creek – South Lakeside) said. “It would be prudent to slow down the bus and take a better look at and actually talk to people and see if we can maybe push the mandate and allow more time.”
Delainey pointed to the exemptions allowed to garbage truck drivers contracted by the CRD who are not subject to vaccine requirements.
McLean responded that because the drivers are contractors, do not enter CRD buildings and have no interaction with other CRD staff or the public, they are not included in the policy.
Director Barb Bachmeier (Bouchie Lake – Quesnel West) said she was also against the vaccination policy and suggested rapid testing might be a better solution to keeping COVID from being transmitted by volunteer firefighters.
“I just don’t think that people who are volunteering their time should be included in this mandate,” Bachmeier said. “This is about who has COVID, and the only way to determine that on a weekly or biweekly basis is to get those rapid tests.”
Other directors warned that elected officials don’t have the legislative power to wade into matters of workplace policy, which fall under the guidance of the CAO.
“I’m having trouble understanding a decision that we didn’t vote on, we are now looking to have the right to force him (MacLean) to give it a two-month grace period,” CRD Chair Margo Wagner (Forest Grove – Canim Lake) said during discussions about the wording of the motion. “I think we could make the recommendation… but it’s not a decision that we made in the first place.”
Similar policies are in place in the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, District of 100 Mile House and City of Quesnel. The City of Williams Lake is set to implement its policy on Monday.