The tug-of-war continued in Hamilton on Wednesday between councillors who want to scrap the city’s vaccine mandate for workers and those who want the unvaccinated to be fired.

Council voted 11-3 to carry a motion by councillor Esther Pauls to extend the existing deadline to Sep. 30. The city had originally required all city workers to show proof of two Covid shots – or an approved exemption – by May 31 or face termination.

Hamilton city hall has said that nearly 94% of workers – or 7,149 people – are considered fully vaccinated, with 505 who have not disclosed their status. Of those, 441 are undergoing rapid testing, while 64 have been forced off the job without pay for noncompliance.

The extension of Hamilton’s vaccination deadline marks the latest development in a tumultuous back-and-forth between members of city council who want the unvaccinated gone and those who support a more rational position.

Hamilton originally announced its policy on Jan. 12, which allowed those who did not show proof of vaccination to continue rapid testing only until May 31.

On Apr. 20, however, the general issues committee voted 6-4 to scrap the policy – a decision that required ratification by full council the following week. The committee’s vote came via a recommendation by head of human resources Lora Fontana that the policy, while preferable in terms of safety, carried risks in terms of both staffing and legalities.

“The requirement to have all of our employees fully vaccinated isn’t one that will be supported from a legal perspective,” she said.

“But we can mandate it for new hires. We do have that flexibility and authority to do so. We can control our destiny in that respect and that’s what we’re intending to do.”

When the vote came on Apr. 27 to ratify scrapping the policy, however, a tie-vote of 6-6 meant the motion was defeated. Four councillors were absent from the meeting, but the policy and its May 31 deadline stayed in place.

Councillor John-Paul Danko, one of the hardliners in support of the mandate, called refusal of the vaccination “selfish,” adding that he supported never having unvaccinated workers back.

“I think we do have to acknowledge that the people that are choosing not to be vaccinated, not because of the health reason, simply because they don’t want a vaccine,” said Danko, “I think we have to acknowledge the selfish entitlement that is involved there.”

“I am perfectly okay with putting the staff that are choosing not to be vaccinated on permanent unpaid leave indefinitely.”

Wednesday’s extension of the deadline does not revoke Hamilton’s policy, nor does it remove the requirement for new municipal hires to show proof of at least two Covid shots. What it does, however, is kick the can another four months and allow noncompliant workers – a vocal crowd of whom attended the extension vote – a ray of hope.

“We chose the most punitive [option] for our employees instead of considering maybe we should do what Burlington did if we really believe that the unvaccinated are the ones that are causing the problem,” said Pauls, who has opposed firings from the beginning. “So, let’s give them some time … then find out how much our taxpayers are going to pay.”

“I know that we all care for each other and we cannot choose the most punitive action.”

The City of Burlington amended its vaccine mandate for city workers on Mar. 23 to establish testing as an alternative. This replaced a May 1 deadline for proof of vaccination, which nevertheless still applied to Burlington firefighters.

Despite all the provinces having lifted their vaccine passports, municipalities across Canada remain all over the map in terms of their vaccination policies for workers. Even in British Columbia, which was the last to lift its passports, Vancouver maintains its vaccine mandate, while Victoria has rescinded.

In a rare victory of arbitration, the city of Richmond invited unvaccinated workers back to work last month with back pay.

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