Arbitrator orders Stellantis to end vaccine mandate in Canada

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Chrysler and Dodge maker Stellantis NV must end its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for Canadian employees after an arbitrator determined the policy is now unreasonable because of waning efficacy against the omicron variant.

The decision issued Saturday has the potential to affect more than 300 employees who have been placed on unpaid leave since January for being unvaccinated or declining to disclose their vaccination status, according to the arbitrator's decision.

After Stellantis announced the requirement for employees and visitors at its Canadian facilities in October alongside General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., it implemented it starting Dec. 17 after discussions with the Canadian autoworkers union Unifor. Unifor Local 444 and Local 1285, which represent employees making the Chrysler Pacifica minivan at Windsor Assembly Plant and Dodge muscle cars and Chrysler 300 sedan at Brampton Assembly Plant in Ontario, respectively, filed a grievance over the policy.

Arbitrator Marilyn Nairn determined the mandate was "reasonable" when the policy was put in place, but ordered Stellantis end it starting June 25.

"After careful review and not without considerable personal reservation," she wrote, "I hereby find that a COVID-19 vaccine mandate defined as requiring two doses (of a two-dose vaccine) is no longer reasonable based on the evidence supporting the waning efficacy of that vaccination status and the failure to establish that there is any notable difference in the degree of risk of transmission of the virus as between the vaccinated (as defined in the Policy) and the unvaccinated.

"Rather, the evidence supports a conclusion that there is negligible difference in the risk of transmission in respect of Omicron as between a two-dose vaccine regimen and remaining unvaccinated. There is, under the definition in the Policy, no longer a basis for removing unvaccinated employees from the workplace."

The arbitrator also noted the Canadian federal government was lifting its own mandate effective Monday.

Almost 95% of the workers at Windsor and Brampton assembly plants are vaccinated. There were 262 unvaccinated employees, including 123 who were seeking a medical or religious exemption. Three people had been granted a medical exemption. Another 71 workers declined to disclose their vaccination status.

Stellantis Canada spokeswoman LouAnn Gosselin said in a statement the automaker is reviewing the decision before determining its next steps.

"We are very pleased with the Arbitrator’s decision that the Stellantis vaccine policy is reasonable," she said. "Stellantis takes its obligation to provide a safe and healthy working environment for its 9,000+ employees throughout Canada seriously."

Local 444 President Dave Cassidy said the union would be in talks with the automaker this week ahead of the mandate's end.

"It's been very hard on a lot of people," Cassidy said in a video posted on the local's Facebook page on Saturday. "There are going to be those who say, 'I didn't want to take the shot, but I was forced to, the company forced me to do it.' Like I said many times, this is such a divisive issue that we've been dealing with. But I can tell you, your local, your leadership believed no one should lose their job because of a choice, and people should always have a choice."

Between the spring of 2020 and April 2022, there were at least 1,096 known positive cases of COVID-19 among employees at the two plants, 817 of which were reported after Jan. 1, according to the arbitration decision. Across Stellantis' Canada operations, there were 1,221 cases. There was one known workplace outbreak, though three notifications at Brampton and seven notifications at Windsor were sent to the Labour Ministry for workplace exposures since 2020.

Meanwhile, Ford continues to require full vaccination for anyone entering a company facility in Canada, where more than 95% of employees are vaccinated or have received an exemption, spokeswoman Kerri Stoakley said in a statement. The policy's deadline was extended to July 4 from May 2.

GM didn't immediately respond to request for comment.

The Detroit Three never instituted a vaccine mandate for bargaining-unit employees in the United States, as it was subject to the United Auto Workers, which held the decision should be a choice for workers.

Stellantis had announced in November a mandate for U.S. nonunionized salaried employees, but suspended that policy in January after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal emergency temporary standard from the U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration from taking effect. The standard would've required employers with 100 or more workers to ensure their employees are vaccinated or tested weekly. At the time, 97% of the affected 14,000 employees had gotten the vaccine or a medical or religious exemption.

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble