The Labour Crisis Behind Quebec’s Vaccine Mandate Debacle

Opinion by Benjamin Beiles.

Close-up of a doctor preparing a vaccine.

Imperiled by the prospect of having to suspend 15,000-22,000 healthcare workers, Québec Premier Francois Legault extended the mandatory vaccination deadline that his government set just one month earlier. The decision, which was announced by Health Minister Christian Dubé on October 13th, was informed by analysis that warned of a significant reduction in services if the mandate were to come into effect on October 15th as planned [1].


The announcement undeniably undermined the messaging campaigns encouraging workers to get the jab, but the government had little choice. Models predicted that the mandate could force hospitals to close 600 beds and 35 operating rooms and would leave long-term care homes dangerously understaffed [2].


How did we get here? Why has the Québec government been forced to delay a vaccine mandate that was relatively successful in other sectors like air travel, manufacturing, and shipping [3]?


Some commentators, like the Globe and Mail’s Robyn Urback, point to low worker morale and union solidarity as driving features of the crisis [4]. And while it is true that spokespersons from major Québec unions supported the extended deadline, they too saw it as an unfortunate necessity and unequivocally advocated for workers to get the vaccine [5].


There is a broader structural failure behind this crisis that began long before the vaccine mandate. The Québec healthcare system simply does not have the institutional capabilities to react effectively to shocks to the labour supply or impose new demands on workers.


Even before COVID-19, healthcare workers were expected to take on unsustainable patient ratios while working in low-paying and precarious positions [6]. If a worker is already dissatisfied, they are going to be less willing to adapt to demands that they perceive as dangerous or unjust. Might as well just quit. Similarly, tensions between employers and healthcare workers damaged the perceived legitimacy of a vaccine mandate imposed and enforced by the Premier. You can’t expect employees to joyfully accommodate new demands imposed by leaders who underpay and undervalue their work.


The harsh conditions also make it difficult to attract new workers to the sector. But this challenge again ties into a broader failure that has left Québec with over 150,000 job vacancies [7]. In 2020, the governing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) implemented plans to limit immigration to the province, despite employers struggling to fill positions [8]. The policy was quickly amended with the onset of the pandemic, but it was too little, too late.


The healthcare debacle in Québec is a pertinent warning in an era of impending climate crises. Policymakers must take action to build the adaptive capacity of critical services and that begins with strengthening the workforce. Creating workplaces that foster trust between workers and government and implementing immigration policies that reflect the labour demand would be two steps in the right direction.

Bibliography

1. Thomas, Katelyn. “Quebec Delays Mandatory Vaccination for Health-Care Workers until Nov. 15.” Montreal Gazette. Accessed October 25, 2021. https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/quebec-delays-mandatory-vaccination-for-health-care-workers-until-nov-15.


2. Ibid.


3. Thomas, Ian. “As Covid Fears in C-Suite Stay High, Most Big Companies ‘totally Support’ Biden Vaccine Mandate: CNBC Survey.” CNBC, October 8, 2021. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/10/08/as-covid-fears-in-c-suite-spike-big-companies-back-vaccine-mandates.html.


4. Urback, Robyn. “Opinion: Quebec Couldn’t Let Its Hospitals Collapse – It Was Right to Cave to Unvaccinated Health Care Workers.” The Globe and Mail, October 19, 2021. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-quebec-couldnt-let-its-hospitals-collapse-it-was-right-to-cave-to/.


5. Denoncourt, Jean-Philippe. “Quebec Health Professionals Union Recommends Vaccinations, Says Education Is Key.” Montreal Gazette, August 18, 2021. https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/quebec-health-professionals-union-recommends-vaccinations-says-education-is-key.


6. Lévesque, Lia. “Au tour des préposés aux bénéficiaires de crier à l’épuisement.” La Presse, February 2, 2018, sec. Santé. https://www.lapresse.ca/actualites/sante/201802/02/01-5152464-au-tour-des-preposes-aux-beneficiaires-de-crier-a-lepuisement.php; Montpetit, Jonathan. “Why Are Quebec’s Nursing Homes so Understaffed, and What’s Being Done about It?.” CBC News, April 15, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebec-nursing-homes-understaffed-1.5531997.


7. Sergeant, Tim. “Quebec Businesses Struggle to Hire Employees Due to Labour Shortage – Montreal.” Global News, April 16, 2021. https://globalnews.ca/news/7764505/quebec-businesses-struggle-hiring-labour-shortage/.


8. “Quebec To Increase Immigration To Tackle Acute Labour Shortage Post-COVID-19,” Immigration.ca, April 30, 2021. https://www.immigration.ca/quebec-to-increase-immigration-to-tackle-acute-labour-shortage-post-covid-19.