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'We're not giving up': BC public servant fired due to vaccine mandate says lawsuit is 'just the beginning'

A former BC Public Service worker who is suing the provincial government and Dr. Bonnie Henry over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate has spoken of his “disbelief” at being fired.

Jason Baldwin, who spent five years as an analyst at the Ministry of Finance, was terminated in October 2022 after close to a year on unpaid leave following the introduction of the mandate in November 2021.

Since then, he’s lost friends, been forced to sell his home in Victoria and ended up becoming a farmer.

He’s also put himself forward as the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that claims the province’s vaccine mandate violated the “medical privacy and bodily autonomy” of public servants, causing “untold suffering” in the process.

The province, however, said the policy was put in place at the height of the pandemic to protect public servants and “helped keep us safe.”

That lawsuit is yet to be certified, so has not been tested in court. The BC government said it will not comment on active cases.

Baldwin, 47, told NowMedia he’s “here to fight” and has no intention of backing down.

<who> Photo credit: NowMedia/BC government </who> Umar Sheikh (left) and Jason Baldwin (right) argue Dr. Bonnie Henry (centre) committed misfeasance.

“I was in total disbelief [when the mandate was announced],” he said. “My wife was a public service employee as well, so it was a double whammy for us both.”

He objected to the mandate partly out of concerns for privacy, and partly because he didn’t like what he was hearing about the vaccines.

“It’s my choice,” he said. “I don’t see why I had to disclose [my vaccination status], especially when [the mandate has] been rescinded and now it’s not an issue anyway, so it was all for nothing.

“I had been doing research on it and wasn’t satisfied with the information that was coming back and just chose to not have it. I didn’t think it would affect my employment at all.”

After the mandates were introduced, Baldwin said he asked if he could work from home – "since I work off a computer all day” – but was refused.

When the public service mandate, known as HR Policy 25, was rescinded in April 2023, the BC government said it had begun “engaging with [affected employees] to identify options for them to return to the workplace.”

But workers who were fired for “non-compliance” with the mandate were not given options to return.

Instead, they were told they were “eligible to re-apply for employment with the BC Public Service.”

Baldwin said that nobody from the ministry reached out to him to discuss his coming back, either to his previous position or to a similar one.

“It was never an option for us to return,” he said. “The only way we could return was to re-apply for your own position. And there’s lots of stories behind that, too, that people tried and they couldn’t even screen in for their own job.”

Baldwin’s case is being handled by Umar Sheikh. His Victoria firm, Sheikh Law, has previously taken on various cases across Canada linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, including another class-action suit related to fired health care workers in BC.

He told NowMedia he has, “unfortunately,” become “specialized” in COVID-19 cases over the last two years.

There could be “potentially thousands” of people involved in the class action, he said, but that is still being determined through the certification process. More than 35,000 people work for the BC Public Service.

<who> Photo credit: BC government </who> Health Minister Adrian Dix and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The BC government told NowMedia 315 public servants had been terminated for either refusing the vaccine or refusing to disclose their vaccination status. It said exemption requests were granted to 176 workers.

Sheikh, though, claimed the government has drastically undercounted the number of people who were fired.

“What we’re looking at is a range of most all public servants who were impacted – we say unlawfully – by Order 627, which was the order in council that enacted HR Policy 25, which was to impose mandatory vaccinations,” he said.

He claims there were two categories of harm – people put on leave without pay who were then terminated, and those “forced” into vaccination.

“I think [the prospects of certification] are good,” he said. “The reality is, we’ve got cases like this all across the country: health care workers, aviation, federal government workers and BC Public Service workers.

“For certification, our test is pretty simple: is it plain and obvious that we don’t have a case? That’s what the other side has to establish.”

Sheikh said he thinks it’s “pretty clear” he has “at least a triable case to move forward.”

The case does not challenge “anything that’s within the collective agreement” involving the BC General Employees’ Union, he explained, but rather alleges inducement of breach of contract.

He said the suit looks at “the impact of the public health officer’s hand going into a contract … and doing something to cause that breach.”

Sheikh also contends that the public health officer – Dr. Henry – committed misfeasance, i.e. the wrongful exercise of lawful authority.

“Bonnie Henry knew, or should have known,” Sheikh said, that the COVID-19 vaccines “did not actually stop transmission of COVID-19.”

“If it doesn’t stop transmission, and it doesn’t stop the virus from getting into you, then is it advancing your stated rational purpose of stopping transmission and holding COVID in its tracks?” he said.

Though stopping COVID-19 is a “good goal,” Sheikh added, “that is certainly not” what the vaccines do. “So why are we doing this?” he asked, arguing that many British Columbians were “forced” to comply with the mandate or risk losing their jobs.

The BC government and Dr. Henry said during the pandemic that the vaccines, as well as reducing transmission, protect against severe bouts of COVID-19, which can lead to hospitalization or even death. That guidance was also issued by the World Health Organization and public health bodies around the globe.

Discussing potential damages, Sheikh said the dollar figure will depend on what he contends were lost wages as well as emotional and mental trauma.

He explained: “The BC Public Service employees were damaged to such a degree – we’ve had members who have rented out their homes and now have moved their family into one-bedroom homes, we have others who have lost their homes entirely, we have people who have gone onto the welfare system, we have destroyed multi-year careers.

“And when you look back and say why, why did you do this, why was this important, there is no real rationale.”

As for the future, Sheikh said the BC government has shown “no appetite” to settle, meaning litigation could take “multiple years.”

But Baldwin, at least, said he’s in it for the long haul, along with several hundred people he said support the non-profit group BCPS Employees for Freedom Society.

“No one’s looking to give up,” he said. “Over the last two years, this is what everyone involved has been waiting for. Now we’re here, now we’re starting – it’s just the beginning. We’re not giving up. I know that’s what they want us to do, but we’re not.”

The BC government told NowMedia it is “unable to comment on matters before the court.”

But in a general statement, the Ministry of Finance said the vaccine policy was put in place “in the height of the pandemic” and was designed to “protect BC Public Service employees.”

The vast majority – 98 per cent – of public servants met the vaccine requirement, the ministry added, “which helped keep us safe.”

“The BC Public Service took a cautious approach in maintaining the policy through the fall and winter 2022/23 respiratory illness season,” the ministry told NowMedia.

“With thoughtful consideration, the vaccine policy was rescinded in full as of April 3, 2023. Employees who remained on leave at the time when the vaccination policy was rescinded were welcomed back to the workplace.”

Vaccination, it added, is no longer required to work for the BC Public Service, though employees are “strongly” encouraged to keep up to date on their shots.

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