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Alberta legislature passes transitory vaccine leave legislation

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Alberta Labour Minister Jason Copping announcing the government's vaccine leave legislation yesterday. Image credit: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr

Never let it be said the United Conservative Party has done nothing worthwhile during the two years it's been in power in Alberta.

Late yesterday the Alberta legislature passed a bill amending the Employment Standards Code "to ensure working Albertans can access up to three hours of paid, job-protected leave to get the COVID-19 vaccine," as a government press release put it.

Denizens of the house on both sides of the aisle are said to have applauded this unusual, and probably unique, moment of bipartisanship. Making it all the more remarkable was the fact the opposition NDP had pushed for the bill before the government made it its own idea.

Even before the legislature voted on Bill 71, the Employment Standards (COVID-19 Vaccination Leave) Amendment Act, 2021, the United Conservative Party signalled it intended to pass the legislation, going so far as to make it take effect as soon as it passed first reading.

Granted, Bill 71 is about as limited in scope as any law can be -- applying for only a short time to one particular set of circumstances, a worldwide pandemic that is generally agreed upon to be a provincial, national and global emergency. So don't expect it to carry over into other areas of business or labour law.

But it is the only legislation passed on the UCP's watch that can be described as even faintly progressive, so it is almost certainly the last time anything like this will happen again as long as Jason Kenney remains Alberta's premier.

Just the same, it is an achievement remarkable enough to deserve having a very short book written about it, or at least a PhD thesis at a small university somewhere far away from tidewater or even a large lake. It certainly should be celebrated -- responsibly, of course, with at least two metres of distance from any other celebrant, plus with all the usual caveats concerning anything the UCP gets up to.

The law made it through three readings in the legislature last night in record time, just under half an hour, presumably before the UCP's large anti-vaxx caucus had a chance to start to think about what they were really being asked to endorse.

"COVID vaccination leave will apply to all employees regardless of job status," said the government's news release, published before the bill was put before the legislature. "There will be no requirement to have worked any length of time for an employer."

Using language carefully drafted not to trouble the quarter of the UCP caucus that views restrictions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus with grave suspicion, the press release quoted Labour Minister Jason Copping observing that "by providing choice without consequence, we continue to protect the lives and livelihoods of all Albertans." (Emphasis added.)

Mentioning choice, of course, makes the point that the government doesn't really think anyone should actually feel any pressure to be vaccinated, no matter how bad COVID-19 gets. Mentioning lives and livelihoods repeats an election campaign slogan the UCP has been giving a test run.

Nevertheless, Premier Kenney himself cautiously declined to contribute any celebratory words to the modest effort.

Opposition Leader (and former NDP premier) Rachel Notley said the bill "will benefit hundreds of thousands of working Albertans because no one wants to log in to book their vaccine just to see that the only spots left are during their work hours, when they can't otherwise afford to leave."

But she didn't say it in the government press release, bipartisanship going only so far in Alberta nowadays.

Still, at the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, one wonders, how progressive is this little law?

Well, it's not as progressive as the similar bill in New Democrat-run British Columbia, which additionally gives workers paid time off to get their loved ones to a vaccination clinic.

That may have been too much to ask of Alberta, but just the same the spokesperson for the local business set found little to like in what otherwise might have been a candidate to be internationally declared a worthwhile Canadian initiative.

Edmonton Chamber of Commerce President Janet Riopel complained in the pages of a local newspaper that the bill will mean -- quelle horreur! -- some additional costs for local businesses.

"We need Albertans to do their part," Riopel grumped. "Get vaccinated as quickly as possible to ensure this mandate is worth the price businesses will pay." (Emphasis added, of course.)

It's a wonderment. Do these people have any idea what this kind of thing makes them sound like?

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr

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