Killaloe – Six members of the Killaloe, Hagarty and Richards (KHR) Fire Department who requested leaves of absence for undefined periods because of their current opinion/status regarding the township’s vaccination policy for employees and staff, have been placed on non-statutory unpaid leave by township council as of February 1.
During the regular meeting of council last Tuesday, Mayor Janice Tiedje introduced letters from the firefighters requesting the leave of absence which contained one general cover letter and individual letters from each of the six firefighters.
The cover letter stated, “Attention. In the attached letters, we as volunteer firefighters are asking that as a municipality, you would reconsider the mandatory vaccine policy for the KHRvolunteer fire department personnel.”
The individual letters were addressed to mayor and council and stated, “Please accept this letter as my notice of a temporary leave of absence as a firefighter from KHR Twp. as of January 31, 2002, until further notice.”
The six firefighters who submitted letters were identified as James McClement, Delmar Gienow, Brad Levean, Darren Cybulski, Brady Gibson and Jonathon Schutt.
Mayor Tiedje reminded council a leave of absence would not be considered without good reason and is granted only if the organization can afford to have those personnel absent.
She suggested council write those members back and tell them, if they were unwilling to get vaccinated, council was placing them on a leave of absence and not granting them the leave of absence as requested, until the end of February, at which time, they could be dismissed if they still are refusing to get vaccinated.
Councillor Ted Browne questioned whether the decision to grant the requested leave should be council’s decision or Fire Chief Bob Gareau’s decision. Mayor Tiedje disagreed, noting the requests were sent to mayor and council, adding the fire chief, road super or CAO have the ability to hire or fire personnel.
“We decided that we wanted a hand in all those decisions,” she explained.
Councillor Brian Pecoskie suggested council ask Chief Gareau for his opinion on the requests.
“Do you feel you can give six leaves of absence off your department and still operate?” he queried.
“If it was up to me, I would not be giving any leave of absence, based on the vaccination policy,” Chief Gareau replied.
He said he had considered giving a firefighter a year off about a year-and-a-half ago because the individual’s children were heavily involved in sports and his business was building construction and he couldn’t participate in department functions as he wanted to.
“I did actually give him the leave for that, but then COVID hit, and that changed all the sports things, so he came back in.”
He said had another member requested leave, say in November, it might have been considered if they had a valid reason, but to come in now after all the steps of the vaccination policy, he would not consider a leave of absence now.
“Unless council insists that we do that,” he said.
“We are not giving a leave of absence because the people that did not agree to sign to get the vaccination have been told that they will be told to go home, and a leave of absence without pay, effective yesterday (January 31),” Mayor Tiedje interjected. “So, these letters mean nothing to me because they’re already on leave without pay because council decided that regarding the vaccine.”
She added the members on leave have until the end of February to comply or they could be terminated.
“They have been sent home for one month without pay to reconsider and if they decide to not get vaccinated, then we will be terminating them,” she stated.
Chief Gareau said he felt the firefighters were not really on a leave of absence, but on suspension.
“Suspension is really a punitive measure, if you like,” he remarked.
He cited an example if a member wanted to take a month off for the birth of a child, they would be granted a leave.
“But you’re suspending them now, okay,” he stated. “Which can lead to termination in a month.”
Mayor Tiedje then suggested they write a letter to each of the six members informing them they are suspended until the end of February to reconsider the vaccination.
“And they’ll be terminated at the end of February?” questioned Councillor Carl Kuehl.
“If they have not reconsidered,” replied the mayor.
Chief Gareau asked Coun. Browne what the vaccination policy for firefighters was in North Algona Wilberforce Township, where he is a member of the volunteer department. He said it was his understanding that if a firefighter is not vaccinated, he has to show proof of being tested every two weeks.
Mayor Tiedje said she felt KHR was taking a firmer stand on protecting its employees with the mandatory vaccination policy.
“We have an obligation to protect our public and our staff,” she said.
“I’ll remind council, and I’ve said it before, you cannot allow the tail to wag the dog,” she added. “Council makes policies. Sometimes they’re to protect our taxpayers and they don’t like it.”
Coun. Kuehl noted the Renfrew County Catholic District School Board was advertising for registration for starting school and one of the criteria was the parent/caregiver had to show proof of immunization.
“So what’s the difference?” he pondered
The mayor said council also has to protect its staff, reminding them they had a personnel policy that was quite extensive.
“It’s all about providing a safe place for employees to work and a place where the public feels safe when they’re approaching our staff,” she said. “I don’t know where these people are hiding but read the paper guys. It is a serious threat to our livelihood. We have to get vaccinated.”
She said although the vaccinated can still get the virus, it is generally less severe.
“They have to keep people out of the hospital, they have to keep people out of ICU, and the only way to do it is to try to limit the exposure. And that’s through vaccination.”
She said the day is coming when people will not be able to go anywhere unless they are vaccinated.
“Those that decide not to get vaccinated can sit at home,” she said. “And if they’re okay with that, then so am I.”
The existing policy, which was passed by by-law on January 12, 2022, clearly states under Enforcement that, “It is very important for our collective health and safety that we follow this policy. By January 31, 2022, employees must either: Provide satisfactory proof of first and second vaccination dose(s) to the employer; or obtain an approved request for accommodation due to a vaccine exemption approved by the employer.”
It goes on to state, “If the employee does not satisfy either of the above obligations by January
the employee will be placed on a non-statutory leave of absence without pay. Further,
in the event neither of the above obligations are satisfied by February 28, 2022, the
employee may be subject to further disciplinary action, including, but not limited to dismissal, with cause, from their employment