Story Highlights 1,300 of city’s 7,000 employees face disciplinary actions over abortion controversy
Both government and academic experts came to different conclusions about the city’s decision
A number of experts predict it could have a chilling effect on reproductive rights
Toronto has dismissed 1,300 of its 7,000 employees amid its controversial abortion law that is putting reproductive rights on hold.
Public sector unions representing city workers were so frustrated with City Manager Joe Pennachetti’s recommendation to fire nearly all of the city’s staff who refused to administer so-called consent-based vaccinations that they threatened to boycott city services.
The city’s laws say individuals in abortion clinics must obtain a doctor’s consent before they can terminate a pregnancy.
During a Sept. 26 public hearing on the issue, Pennachetti suggested that rather than firing those staff members, or transferring them to other departments, the city was considering forcing them to take a five-day unpaid break. In response, union members said they planned to call a one-day strike next month.
Pennachetti’s spokesperson, John Walsh, reiterated on Friday that officials met with all 8,000 of the city’s staff to discuss Pennachetti’s suggestions and to remind employees that the city has an obligation to “secure the safety and health of all of its citizens.”
He reiterated that the city has the option to fire the 1,300, and if they do so, he’s certain Pennachetti will do so.
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. And when we’ll need to be able to identify replacements to ensure service remains available,” Walsh said.
Allowing employees who refuse to offer consent-based vaccinations — and who don’t have clear medical reasons for doing so — could create access challenges, Walsh said.
“If you’re going to ask a retiree on their last day to give a compulsory vaccination — either from a social and medical point of view, or a work-related medical point of view — that is going to make it very difficult to make that transition,” he said.
That statement has sparked concerns that some activists will see the city’s move as an attack on reproductive rights. And it’s one they plan to challenge in court.
But Walsh says the city is standing by the legality of the mandate.
“There are no irregularities whatsoever with the current sanction,” he said.
Lisa Long, a long-time employment lawyer and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto, says the issue is about balancing the right to an abortion against the right to receive a vaccine that could protect someone against other potential infections.
“There are times where corporations can limit a worker’s ability to take care of themselves,” Long said.
“If I’m a young woman, I don’t want to have to worry if the vaccine I’m taking could lead to another (conception), or if I could have HIV because I was vaccinated. I don’t want to have to think that all the way through.”
Related: Toronto’s plan to require women to get vaccinations has wider political implications
And there are other policy implications that could come out of the episode.
Politicians could come under pressure to increase the number of women in parliament and close gender gaps within public-sector labor.
Or, most worryingly, Walsh says the fallout could affect women who are planning their pregnancies.
“It’s a very real possibility that women will be dissuaded from going into these clinics, if they can get the information about (the mandate) in a way that is not making them feel a sense of shame, fear or guilt,” he said.
But as Walsh pointed out, much of the confusion stems from the city’s original mandate, which hasn’t been altered.
“Part of the problem, frankly, is the word is unclear,” he said.
“What did the city say? ‘Only people of the Catholic faith are eligible for full exemption to the mandatory consent-based vaccination policy,'” he said. “What did the city say? ‘Everyone is eligible for a certificate of exemption, but only people who belong to the Catholic faith are eligible for full exemption.'”